Several Oilers defensive issues remain despite Mattias Ekholm’s return

EDMONTON — The return of Mattias Ekholm from a hip/groin issue was supposed to solve the Edmonton Oilers’ defensive woes. That wasn’t the case Saturday.

The Oilers cut down the goals against to the Vancouver Canucks in the rematch, a low bar considering they allowed eight of them in Vancouver on Wednesday. They trimmed the shots on goal from their opponents, too — just 16.

But there were glaring mistakes from key members of the last line of defence that proved costly.

“We have some lapses in our game that are self-inflicting,” winger Zach Hyman said. “It’s important that you need to clean those up early. When that happens, the shots may be low, but you’re still giving up opportunities that are hard to save.”

A rare miscue from Ekholm, the team’s most reliable blueliner, led to the game-winning goal by Sam Lafferty.

The Canucks forward beat Ekholm wide off the rush before he deposited a shot past Oilers goaltender Stuart Skinner at 2:56 of the third period. That was a difference in a 4-3 game.

“It’s the pace,” said Ekholm, who played just 15:47 — fourth among Oilers blueliners. “You can skate on your own or skate with the team, but it’s a whole other level when you skate in game action.

“I’m sure it’ll take a couple games here before I get my legs under me.”

Ekholm wasn’t even the biggest culprit. Far from it.

Mental errors played a huge part in the loss, Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said.

“There were some situations where we gave up goals where we can be better at,” he said. “Just small things.

“There are small things we can do on each one of those goals, and for us to take a step, that’s the step we have to take.”

Collectively, the Oilers haven’t been good enough when it comes to preventing offence, which Saturday’s performance only re-emphasized.

“I would say there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Hyman said.

Here are three areas that need addressing.

Nurse-Ceci pair

Connor McDavid tied the score 1:45 into the second period on an Oilers power play. It looked like things were back on track.

Cue the worst gaffe of them all.

The Oilers were rushing up the ice with numbers, a good sign until Warren Foegele missed the net from a sharp angle. That set up a two-man breakaway for the Canucks’ Elias Pettersson and Jack Studnicka, which the latter converted.

The goal came just 51 seconds after McDavid’s tally. Talk about letting the air out of the balloon.

“It’s one of those classic things: When you’re coming down the wing, just hit the net,” Ekholm said. “But we’ve also got to have some guys staying back.”

Foegele missing the mark didn’t help matters, but the real error was Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci skating to the hashmarks with two Canucks behind them. That can’t happen.

“You don’t commit five people to the rush,” Woodcroft said.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins put the Oilers on equal terms less than seven minutes later, so the Studnicka goal wasn’t the backbreaker it could have been. It’s just tough to win games when you’re gifting the opposition clear-cut chances that result in faceoffs at centre ice.

“That’s one we could have prevented,” Ekholm said.

Bouchard’s struggles continue

The Oilers were planning on running top-four duos of Ekholm and Philip Broberg, plus Nurse and Evan Bouchard to start the season. The injury to Ekholm put a dent in those plans — at least for now.

Woodcroft said he wanted to ease Ekholm back into the lineup, which resulted in him being reunited with Bouchard — the de facto top pair in the last quarter of the 2022-23 season. If part of the idea was to kickstart Bouchard — who, like so many Oilers, was lousy in the season opener — it didn’t quite work out.

The underlying numbers were good Saturday. The Oilers out-attempted the Canucks by a two-to-one ratio at five-on-five with both players on the ice, per Natural Stat Trick. Bouchard still hasn’t displayed much of any confidence away from the power play, though.

He made two flips out of the Edmonton end in the first period instead of making an outlet pass. One of them went for icing. At least he wasn’t overmatched on a goal against the way he was on Vancouver’s eighth marker Wednesday, but there’s more to give defensively, too.

The Oilers need more from this player — and fast.

Goaltending concerns

Let’s make this clear right off the bat: Skinner wasn’t the reason the Oilers lost this game. In fact, he might not have been at fault on any of the goals against — even if the stats don’t look great.

“Goalies know how to play,” Skinner said. “Numbers lie. I thought I played well — other than getting 16 shots and letting four in. It happens.”

The first two he allowed were tipped right in front of him. The third one was the two-on-zero. It’s tough to blame the goalie on those three.

The only potential outlier was Lafferty’s winner, which was a clear-cut chance in tight.

“I actually feel really good,” Skinner said. “I definitely want to look back on the fourth one. I’m not exactly sure what happened. But (maybe) there’s something I can look at and change.

“Besides that, the other three were pretty good goals. My game, I feel like I’m in a really good spot.”

That’s all true, but the Oilers just need to start getting some saves.

Jack Campbell started the season by making 12 saves but letting four pucks past him before getting pulled. Skinner has matched him. He’s allowed four goals on 16 shots in each of his two appearances — the first coming in relief of Campbell on Wednesday.

That’s a .750 save percentage for both netminders with Skinner allowing eight goals on 32 shots.

“He’s like our team is right now,” Woodcroft said, “which is there’s good moments to his game and there’s moments that he can clean up as well.”

(Photo of Sam Lafferty scoring the deciding goal on Stuart Skinner as Mattias Ekholm defends: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via Associated Press)

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