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Oilers finding new ways to win as first-place battle with Maple Leafs looms

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EDMONTON — With a tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen, it was widely believed that Edmonton Oilers weren’t good enough in hockey’s most important position.

Well, the morning after an acrobatic, 32-save shut out by Smith, the Oilers find themselves four points out of what is TRULY hockey’s most important position.

First place.

Fresh off a two-game sweep of a home-and-home versus Calgary, the Oilers completed a two-game sweep with a gutsy, gritty 3-0 win at Vancouver, pulling within four points of North Division-leading Toronto and setting up a tasty three-game set between those two clubs beginning Saturday in Edmonton.

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This was a goaltending duel between Smith and Thatcher Demko, who stopped 31 including at least three breakaways. The Oilers guy was just a bit better, the story of the season thus far for Vancouver.

“I just really want to play well for this group,” Smith said after the game. “I feel like we’ve done a lot of good things this year, and put us in a good spot. I don’t want that to slide away because of goaltending. It’s a mission I’m on.

“We’re learning to win different ways. It’s getting us important points right now.”

In their past four games the Oilers have won in four completely different fashions:

• A 2-1, defensive road win at Calgary with the goals scored by Jesse Puljujarvi and fourth-liner Gaetan Haas.

• A 7-1 blowout where Connor McDavid ran through the Flames up in Edmonton.

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• Erasing a 3-0 deficit to beat Vancouver 4-3 on Tuesday.

• And on Thursday, a goaltender’s duel, where the Oilers just pulled away, taking care of their own end first, and scoring enough to get by.

“It’s not just about the points. We’re doing it in different ways,” Smith said. “We came back last game, and this was a real tight game and we find a way to grind one out.”

The Canucks are undoubtedly the most fragile team in the North Division these days, a team that has been inventing new ways to lose all season long. Edmonton, meanwhile, has for the first time in a very long while forged a confidence that seems unbreakable.

Demko was absolutely fantastic on Thursday. Good enough to make any team feel like this might not be their night.

But Alex Chiasson stuffed one home on a second period powerplay, and Puljujarvi scored similarly at 12:35 of the third. The goals weren’t pretty, but the scoreboard was, completed by McDavid’s empty netter.

“It’s experience. It’s confidence,” said Smith, asked to describe the team’s mojo. “It’s learning how to win close games — believing in the group, and what the coaching staff is preaching. It’s everyone getting on the same page… and I feel like we’ve really, really taken a step in the right direction here.

“You can feel it,” he continued. “It’s a different feeling in the locker room. This team is gaining confidence every single day we’re together. Guys are gelling… Winning helps in gaining confidence, and a swagger about the group. We feel we can win close games, or games where we’re down.”

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A team that started the season with a 3-6 record has now won six straight on the road (for the first time since 1987), eight of their last nine, and 11 of 13.

And the goaltending? They’ve pulled their team save percentage up to .909 since Smith returned. He’s now 6-0, but afterwards head coach Dave Tippett had a wider smile when asked about Puljujarvi’s crucial insurance goal, scored from the blue paint in front of Demko.

“I love Jesse,” Tippett said. “When he scores? He looks like he’s having so much fun, he’s like a kid in a candy store.”

A topic in Edmonton over the previous 48 hours was how the Oilers might handle Canucks rowdy winger Antoine Roussel, who had inexplicably thought it a good idea to drop the gloves with Puljujarvi, landing a couple of punches on the surprised young Finn on Tuesday.

Is Darnell Nurse too valuable a player to surrender five minutes in the penalty box in exchange for exacting revenge, the radio callers wondered? What about Jujhar Khaira? That seemed a better trade.

In the end, the Oilers simply played hockey and it was Puljujarvi who exacted his own revenge. He scored while Roussel was in the box for hooking, a delicious plot twist for Edmonton.

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“He plays hard,” Tippett continued on Puljujarvi, who now has six goals. “He’s on pucks, he’s around it, he plays hard all the time. He’s come in and really given us a boost. He’s a top-six forward who can play in a lot of different situations. I think there’s still huge upside on him going forward, but he’s been real good for us so far.”

The closest Vancouver came to solving Smith was when a puck snuck underneath him in the second period. It required a review from Toronto and was deemed not to have crossed the line.

How close was that puck to going in?

What was Smith’s take on the play?

“No idea. No clue,” he said. “That’s why I lied there for a minute and had a break. Had no idea where the puck was, what the call was. No one was talkin’ to me, so I didn’t want to move and make it more obvious than it needed to be.”

Now it’s three straight against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a battle for first place in the North.

Game 1 goes on Hockey Night in Canada Saturday.

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