Almost two months into the season, Kraken has finally taken a major step toward competing in the Pacific Division by defeating one of its teams.
All the talk throughout the season was how the division was relatively weak and could enable the Kraken to remain in the playoff hunt with a nearly .500 record. Well, the actual game didn’t start out that way, with Pacific opponents winning more than anticipated and Kraken winning 0-5 against divisional foes.
But a game from a hard 4-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night, with Kraken lacking top scorers Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle, gave notice as they looked to jump back into this divisional competition. The closing seconds, a 6-on-4 loss with the Kraken as the Oilers of Conor McDavid and Leon Dracitel pressed for a tying goal, certainly felt like a rivalry game with fans roaring in anticipation. Because the home side had snapped the spot and held on.
“You know they have a great team,” Kraken center Gourde said of the Oilers, who went 16-5-0 and with the second-best record in the Western Conference. “They are very talented, they are very good. So, you have to respect their skills.”
But the Kraken, now 9-13-2, are recently proving they’re nothing like a “typical” NHL expansion team, with many quickly judging them during the initial month—plus. Indeed, beating Washington, Carolina, Florida and now Edmonton in the past two weeks, the Kraken demonstrated that when they play a full 60 minutes, they can compete with the best squads in the division, conference, and league.
“We are going to win the game by playing only 60 minutes in this league,” Gourde said. “You can’t take your foot off the gas because when you do that at any time, the teams are going to tear you apart.”
And against the high-octane Oilers, Kraken showed why many predicted they would be competitive within the division. Namely, they were considered a relentless team that closed neutral territory and slowed down highly skilled players while delivering explosive counterattacks.
That style worked well for division counterpart Vegas Golden Knights in raising favorites Colorado in last spring’s playoffs, and the Kraken didn’t seem intimidated at all by the Oilers’ offensive skills this time around.
“Like I said, they are a fast team, they are very skilled and you have to respect them,” Gourde said. “But at the same time, you have to play fast. You can’t stay steady against that team because they’re going to tear you apart. You have to keep your pace in neutral territory, match their pace, hit the puck well. Have to track down and have them dump the puck in our area. And hopefully we can get a good recovery and we can get it back right away.”
Kraken forward Colin Blackwell echoed the sentiments of Gourde and other teammates, saying that the team’s “identity” had finally taken shape with “layers” of defensive play that could neutralize more offensively skilled opponents. .
And if that’s true, this Pacific division may soon be back to normal as expected.
You can’t have a rivalry when your opponent has taken all the victories and that was the case on Friday between the Kraken and the rest of the division.
Certainly, Kraken played mostly predictable powerhouse Pacific squads down the road, losing to Vegas twice and to Edmonton once. But they also lost at home to the now last-placed Vancouver team and the Anaheim Ducks.
They sit 13-8-4 with the Ducks Conference’s fourth-best record, an example of a confusing split of expectations. In fact, three of the top four conference teams and four of the top six are Pacific squads.
Leading are the 15-4-5 Calgary Flames, who are tied with Toronto in second place in the full league entering Saturday. But like Anaheim, or the 13-10-1 San Jose Sharks, many expect Calgary to regress and return to something better akin to pre-season estimates by an injury-prone Vegas team.
And with Kraken finally displaying the identity of an earlier forecast, they could join the leap teams in Vegas that fill the void higher up in the Pacific standings. And they’ll need it if they want to be in next spring’s playoff hunt.
One consequence of Pacific teams performing better than expected is that finishing in the top-three of the division for an automatic playoff berth will be more difficult than once thought.
That would likely mean passing Edmonton, Vegas or one of the Wonder Flames – who have earned their record with an NHL-best +32 goal difference entering Saturday – and are sitting 15 points up on the Kraken. In a league where overtime and shootout defeats make it difficult to bridge gaps in the single digit standings, the Flames and Oilers are already far ahead, even with 58 games to go.
Otherwise, one of the two conference wild card spots is being secured and held by Pacific teams San Jose and Vegas while Anaheim is ahead of the Golden Knights for third place in the division. Therefore, defeating Pacific foes becomes vital for the Kraken if it wants to capture not only the teams in the division, but also the status of the conference.
The Sharks enter Saturday seven points above Kraken, but with a goal margin of zero they could have some games off the top of their heads. The Kraken, which entered six points behind Vegas for the other wild-card on Saturday, plays the Sharks in San Jose in the middle of the month and Anaheim the next night.
In fact, seven of Kraken’s next 13 games are against divisional opponents. So, there is no time like the present how they will play more like they expected.
“I think it’s just a confidence boost,” Kraken defenseman Carson Sousi said. “Last homestand we beat some good teams and then we hit the road and beat some good teams too. So, I think it’s confidence in our sport and knowing what it takes to be successful. ,