From November 26th to January 21st of the 2011-12 season the Oilers played a block of games that defined their season. They had a record of 5-18-2. It was their worst stretch of the year, so what the heck happened?
Nikolai Khabibulin had two of the Oilers' wins in that period. Unfortunately, he also had thirteen of their losses, only two of which came in overtime or the shootout. He won just 13% of the time, and was pulled three times. Devan Dubnyk also had a poor showing, though next to Khabibulin he looked like Patrick Roy. Dubnyk had a record of 3-7-0, which means that he won 30% of the time.
But Khabibulin wasn't entirely to blame. He had at least a 0.919 save percentage in seven of those fifteen games, and yet he lost five of them. In those seven games the Oilers managed to score just 14 goals. Khabibulin had to hold the opposition to less than two goals for his team to have a shot at winning, which he managed to do three times in that fifteen game stretch with a record of 2-1-0.
The Oilers were outshot 782 to 668 in their long period of suck, or 26.7 shots for per game to 31.3 against. That's not far off from their season averages, though. Over the full year the Oilers had 26.7 shots for per game and allowed 30.7, and yet they weren't nearly as terrible over a full season as they were in this one block of games.
So what happened?
The Oilers ran into some bad luck. The numbers above are unacceptable for a playoff team, but the Oilers weren't actually as bad as this run of games suggests. They outshot the opposition in six of the games and had a record of 1-3-2. When tied in the shot department the Oilers had a record of 1-2-0. That's nine games that should have been within reach, but the Oilers had a combined record of 2-5-2 in them.
As a team they scored 2.24 goals per game in that darkest period, which was slightly down from their season average of 2.52. And though their goalies were not entirely to blame, the team was nevertheless allowing 3.36 goals against per game, which was up from their season average of 2.83. Excluding this stretch of games, the Oilers scored 151 goals in 57 games (2.65 per game) and allowed 148 (2.60 per game).
When assessing a team's performance, we can't just cut out games to suit our liking. However, what this does show is how much this 25 game span torpedoed the season for the Oilers. 2.60 goals against per game would have been good for 11th in the league, and 2.65 goals for per game would have been 15th. From November 26th to January 21st, the Oilers scored on 8.39% of their shots, which is slightly below league average (8.94%). But their goalies had a combined save percentage of just 0.893, which is well below league average (0.914).
So, more shots are needed from the Oilers which is something we all know. But once again, we might be underestimating how important good goaltending is - or even average goaltending for that matter. A 0.914 Sv% on the 782 shots the Oilers faced in this 25 game stretch is 67 goals against (2.68 per game).
The other problem for the Oilers in this poor run was that their offense and defense never seemed to be playing well in the same game. They scored at least 3 goals ten times, with a record of 4-6-0, and allowed 2 or less seven times with a record of 2-2-3. The rest of the time the goaltending and defense was coming off the rails.
Injuries played a big part in that. Tom Gilbert missed 9 of these games, and Ryan Whitney was out for 13 of them. Corey Potter was lost for eight. Cam Barker was also out of the lineup for all of these games, which was no great loss but also forced other players into taking on larger roles, especially when combined with these other injuries. It's no wonder that the goals against department took a major hit. On the offensive side, Taylor Hall missed nine games and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was hurt for nine as well. Jordan Eberle was out for four games in this stretch. The Oilers also lost Eric Belanger, Anton Lander, Ben Eager and others to injuries in this time.
A picture is forming. An inexperienced and mentally fragile team is decimated by injuries and mired in a losing streak. Their goaltenders did not play well enough to single-handedly drag them out of this spiral - and played poorly in fact - so the team enters a slump that it cannot get out of. Other teams pass them by in the standings and the playoffs become a pipe dream. The competition level drops, and willful players that could help address the problem are not around to do so.
Outside of this dark period the Oilers were 27-22-8, which is a 39-win, 89-point pace - just shy of a playoff spot. We can't expect the Oilers not to have a long period of awfulness in the future, but it will be the length of that period, how they recover from it, and how their organizational depth impacts it that defines how quickly they make the playoffs. If things break right, they might not be all that far away.