December 24, 2017 / 4:39 AM / in 5 months

Oilers top Canadiens for fourth straight victory

Oilers top Canadiens for fourth straight victory

EDMONTON, Alberta — If the Oilers want to climb back into the NHL playoff race, Saturday’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens was the kind of game they had to win.

For national television in Canada, the game faced off at 5 p.m. local time so those in the Eastern time zone could watch in prime time. The Canadiens played in Calgary on Friday night, so they were back on the ice, in a different city, only about 18 hours after their previous game ended. Plus, the Canadiens gave rarely used veteran Antti Niemi the start in goal.

Backup goaltender, tired team. Even though Niemi was solid with 31 saves, the Oilers took advantage with a tidy 4-1 victory.

So look out NHL. The Oilers are finally playing like the pundits had predicted they would at the start of the season. The Oilers’ were Vegas co-favorites for the Stanley Cup, but sputtered for 2 1/2 months. But the Oilers will head into Christmas break on a four-game winning streak.

The Canadiens’ two-game win streak was snapped.

Connor McDavid had a goal and an assist, Leon Draisaitl had three assists and winning goalie Cam Talbot made 29 saves. Jujhar Khaira also had a goal and an assist.

“It definitely makes the holidays better, but at the same time we want to come back and be a team that is in a playoff spot,” Khaira said. “We are at .500 right now, so we still have a lot of work left to do. But it is a good thing to build off.”

“It says we are a resilient group,” Talbot said. “We could have folded our hand after we got down and everybody said we had no chance of making the playoffs and counted us out. But we still believed in this room. Obviously .500 isn’t where we wanted to be at this point, but it is a good place to start from after the break. It’s been a nice little run and we are feeling good with ourselves.”

The Canadiens showed some life one minute in when Brendan Gallagher cut in from the boards and steamed in on Oilers goalie Cam Talbot. But Talbot kept his pads steady to deny Gallagher.

From there on in, it was the Oilers’ show.

At 13:49, Ryan Strome opened the scoring, firing past a sprawling Niemi after Khaira made a great pass across the offensive zone.

Just two minutes after that, the Oilers doubled their lead, thanks to McDavid. The reigning league MVP skated out from behind the Canadiens net, coasted up the boards, cut to the middle of the ice near the blue line and unleashed a wrist shot that stunned a screened Niemi.

Milan Lucic made it 3-0 on the power play at 4:21 of the second. He was on the doorstep of the crease to bang home Draisaitl’s pass.

Monreal scored on the power play at 12:55 as Joe Morrow’s point shot was tipped by Paul Byron and Andrew Shaw before trickling in.

Niemi kept his team alive in the third period by denying Patrick Maroon twice on the same breakaway.

“I felt pretty good, even though they scored two goals in the first,” Niemi said. “I was able to stay loose and just let the puck come, and react... Of course I want to get the win, that’s a huge goal for me right now. But I have to feel pretty good about the game, how I played today.”

Khaira iced the game with an empty-net goal at 18:02.

The Oilers also survived a scare. Late in the third period, McDavid hobbled off the ice after blocking a shot and didn’t play in the final couple minutes. But Oilers coach Todd McLellan said his star center is fine.

“The doctors have X-rayed it, they’ve come back negative,” McLellan said. “His foot’s a little sore, but he’s in good spirits, a couple days (off) will help him, and I fully expect him to play in Winnipeg.”

Montreal coach Claude Julien admitted that, despite the team’s best efforts, picking up and playing again so soon after Friday’s win in Calgary was too high a mountain to climb.

“We weren’t good enough in the first half of the game,’’ Julien said. “I thought we picked it up in the second half. Obviously, that goal gave us a little bit of life. But we didn’t seem to find our legs or even our momentum in the first half, and we seemed to be chasing the game more than anything else.

“But you play two games in less than 24 hours, you try and push yourself as athletes, you try and push ‘em as a coach to be ready to go. And tonight was a tough night, unfortunately they had a good goaltender, too. We had some chances but certainly not as good as the chances they had on our goaltender.”

NOTES: With Antti Niemi getting the call in net for the Canadiens, G Carey Price’s run of 12 straight starts was broken. ... Canadiens D Karl Alzner extended his iron-man streak to 576 games, tying Billy Harris for the 13th-longest consecutive-game run in league history. ... The Canadiens scratched D Jakub Jerabek, LW Jacob De La Rose and LW Charles Hudon. ... The Oilers scratched LW Anton Slepyshev, D Eric Gryba and D Yohann Auvitu. ... Canadiens D Brett Lernout made his first appearance since being called up from the team’s AHL affiliate in Laval, Quebec, on Thursday.

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