Nearly two months into the season, the Kraken have taken a major step toward competing in the Pacific Division by finally beating one of its teams.
All the talk heading into the season was how the division was relatively weak and could enable the Kraken to stay in the playoff hunt with roughly a .500 record. Well, the actual games didn’t quite start that way, with Pacific opponents winning more than anticipated and the Kraken going 0-5 against divisional foes.
But a hard-fought 4-3 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night in a game the Kraken lacked top scorers Jaden Schwartz and Jordan Eberle served notice they are ready to jump back into this divisional competition. The closing seconds, with the Kraken at a 6-on-4 disadvantage as the Oilers of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl repute pressed for the tying goal, sure felt like a rivalry game with fans roaring in anticipation as the home side broke up chances and held on.
“You know they have a tremendous team,” Kraken center Yanni Gourde said of the Oilers, who’d entered 16-5-0 and with the second-best record in the Western Conference. “They’re so talented, they’re so good. So, you’ve got to respect their skill.”
But the Kraken, now 9-13-2, lately are proving they’re nothing like a “typical” NHL expansion team many quickly pegged them as during the opening month-plus. Indeed, by beating Washington, Carolina, Florida and now Edmonton the past two weeks, the Kraken demonstrated they can compete with division, conference and league best squads when they play a complete 60-minute game.
“The only way we’re going to win games in this league is by playing 60 minutes,” Gourde said. “You can’t take your foot off the gas because when you do that at any point, teams are going to pick you apart.”
And against the high-octane Oilers, the Kraken demonstrated why many predicted they’d be competitive within the division. Namely, they were supposed to be a relentless team that shuts down the neutral zone and slows highly skilled players while mustering explosive counterattacks.
That style worked well for the division counterpart Vegas Golden Knights in upending favored Colorado in last spring’s playoffs and the Kraken did not appear at all intimidated by the Oilers’ offensive prowess this time around.
“Like I said, they’re a fast team, they’re very skilled and you’ve got to respect them,” Gourde said. “But at the same time, you have to play fast. You can’t be standing still against that team because they’re going to pick you apart. You have to keep your speed in the neutral zone, match their speed, track the puck well and make them dump the puck in our zone. And hopefully we can get a good retrieval and we can get it right back out.”
Kraken forward Colin Blackwell echoed the sentiments of Gourde and other teammates by saying the team’s “identity” has finally taken shape with “layers” of defensive play that can neutralize more offensively skilled opponents.
And if that’s true, this Pacific Division could soon normalize closer to what was expected.
You can’t have rivalries when your opponent does all the winning and that was the case between the Kraken and the rest of the division heading into Friday.
Sure, the Kraken had played mostly projected powerhouse Pacific squads on the road in losing twice to Vegas and once to Edmonton. But they’d also lost at home to a now last-place Vancouver team and the Anaheim Ducks.
Those Ducks are an example of the division confounding expectations, sitting 13-8-4 with the conference’s fourth best record. 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, tied with Toronto for second place in the entire league entering Saturday. But like Anaheim, or the 13-10-1 San Jose Sharks, many expect regression from Calgary and ascension by an injury-wracked Vegas team back to something better resembling preseason projections.
And with the Kraken finally displaying the identity previously forecast, they could join Vegas in leapfrogging teams filling the void higher up in the Pacific standings. And they’ll need to if they want to be in next spring’s playoff hunt.
One consequence of Pacific teams playing better than expected is that finishing among the division’s top-three for an automatic playoff berth will be far more difficult than once thought.
It would likely mean surpassing one of Edmonton, Vegas or the surprising Flames who — with an NHL-best +32 goal differential entering Saturday — have earned their record and sat 15 points up on the Kraken. In a league where single points for overtime and shootout losses make it difficult to overcome gaps in the standings, the Flames and Oilers are already very far ahead even with 58 games remaining.
Otherwise, there’s securing one of two conference wild card spots and Pacific teams San Jose and Vegas hold those while Anaheim is just ahead of the Golden Knights for third place in the division. So, it becomes critical for the Kraken to beat Pacific foes if they want to catch teams not only in the division, but the conference standings as well.
The Sharks enter Saturday seven points up the Kraken, but with a goal differential of zero may be playing somewhat over their heads. The Kraken, who entered Saturday six points behind Vegas for the other wild-card, play the Sharks in San Jose mid-month and Anaheim the next night.
In fact, seven of the Kraken’s next 13 games are against division opponents. So, no time like the present to be playing more how they’d hoped.
“I think it’s just a confidence,” Kraken defenseman Carson Soucy said. “Last homestand we beat some good teams and then we went on the road and beat some good teams too. So, I think it’s a confidence in our game and knowing what it takes to be successful.”