Sunday, October 30, 2011

Edmonton Oilers Postgame 11: Phoenix Rising

From the ashes of our dark, injury plagued failures of past, a bright future has surged forth. Most of the naysayers - including myself in some part - have been predicting an outcome for this seasons team that ranged somewhere from ****-gargling bottom dweller to a team with a sliver of a outside shot at the playoffs. There was the expectation that out goaltending was going to have question marks, that our defence might be swiss-cheese like in consistency, and perhaps the hints of an offensive juggernaut would make mewling newborn sounds.

This all has come out of the wash, 11 games in, precisely opposite to how nearly everyone has predicted. Our goaltending has been league leading, our defence downright dominating, and our offence has been merely adequate at best. Take a look at some of these mind boggling early season figures:
  • Goals against/Game: 1.46 - Number 1 in the league
  • Goals for/Game: 2.18 - Number 25 in the league
  • Team Save Percentage: 95.1% - Number 1 in the league
  • Power Play: 20.8% - Number 12 in the league
  • Penalty Kill: 89.1% - Number 4 in the league
  • Points: 16 - Number 2 in the league
Let's not start hatching plans for world domination just yet, though. We still have played the majority of our games at home (8 of 11) and all of the favourable line matching that has been occurring early in the season will quickly be tested as the Oilers embark on a 6 game road trip that will take them into the 3rd week of Movember.

This recent 4-2 swashbuckling of the St Louis Blues was another game where the Oilers demonstrated strengths on special teams and featured plenty of razzle-dazzle from the lolipop line (yea that's right, I can make up shitty nicknames for the kid line too). Smyth continued his surprising offensive contribution with a couple of G's; he's an unexpected early offensive leader, clocking in at 11gp, 5-5-10, +2. Eberle, Hall, and Hopkins are still flirting with the PPG barrier deeper into the season, and a .933 effort from Khabibulin actually dropped his save percentage.

I was especially impressed with the defensive core tonight, as they lost Sutton and Barker, but plugged the holes more than adequately with Petry and Plante. In this writers humble opinion, Jeff Petry is a better player than Cam Barker right now, and the fact that Barker is getting a look over the U.S. kid still surprises me. Petry was moving the puck out of the Oilers zone with ease and made a couple of offensive forays that really underscore his fantastic set of winged sandals and general competence for playing on both sides of center. Plante had a much smaller role (12:05 with 1 second of PK), but actually didn't look much worse than anything I would have expected out of Sutton. Perhaps it's not saying much, but for all those writing him off, it's not too late he might turn out to be a serviceable bottom pairing guy.

I think Ladislav Smid deserves his own paragraph at this point, plus he should promptly be sent a cupcake, for becoming the NHL league leader in blocked shots (make the icing black and blue). It's one of those categories that isn't surfaced on many statistical reports or on screen TV graphics, but nonetheless, for a defensive defenceman, it's a very telling stat. Let's not forget, Smid was drafted in the top 10 (9th overall in '04), and I think the expectations have oscillated from a smooth skating, 2-way defenceman, to a defensive tweener, to a top level shutdown guy. Based on the game he played tonight, where virtually all of his zone escapes and breakout passes were perfect, the needle has been firmly placed on a elite defensive defenceman. No guarantees it will last, but through the first 11 games this year, he has not wavered at all. There's no question GIlberts stellar play is also a big factor, but right now Smid is a beauty and he's all ours.

Khabibulin had a couple of monster saves at various parts of the game, and aside from that .50 caliber shot from Backes, his game was excellent, and the few times he gave out softer rebounds, the Oilers were in a solid defensive posture to ensure garbage collection was on schedule. It's probably debateable is Backes cannon was even stoppable. That puppy had heat like an Austin Powers crotch dance.

Individuals and a wrap after the cut.

Ladislav Smid - Was a marvel to watch tonight. Perfect pivots in the D-zone to escape forcheckers, high and out when the lanes were plugged, and plenty of skate-hit-seperate plays by our goofy Czech defender. It might seem a little weird to gush so much about a guy who has approximately 0 points in 11 games, but man Smid is playing a perfect brand of defensive hockey right now, and it's no secret he's a huge contributor to this league leading defence. He once again logged big minutes, 23:22, and played the most EV (20:59) and PK (2:23) of anyone on the Oilers. You might crave a little more puck-rush, offensive-charge type plays from the guy, but otherwise it's all jelly*.

*reference to the best possible box of doughnuts

Tom Gilbert - Has left his twinkletoes days far behind apparently, as he's playing with a lot more grit and sandpaper in his game than we have ever seen from Tom. He seems to revel being the Oilers #1 guy, and I actually wonder now if Whitney will supplant him at *any* time this year even if he comes back at 100%. Gilbert really has been playing that good. He's only got 3 points and is a -2, but he's been absorbing every teams top line, night-in night-out, and clearly not been panicked at all early in this season. He's been nothing but buttermilk smoothness back there. ~25 minutes and a helper.

Jeff Petry - I've been high Petry for a while now, and it's games like this which make me strongly suspect that Cam Barker's agent has compromising pictures of Tambellini in a massage parlour somewhere preventing him from playing in the big boy leagues. What's not to like? He's got an amazing reach, is sound positionally and makes a sleek, sexy outlet pass. He's got decent trotters to help him jump into a rush, and he can fire the puck at above 100 ehm-pee-aich. Am I really the only one who sees Petry in this light?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Was full marks for another 2 assists, and now we are seeing a total that is a bit more expected for the pale one, more Apples than Goji berries (I was looking for a fruit that shared the same first letter as Goal). His shooting percentage is also shifting downwards towards a more realistic range (22.7, good for 36th in the league) - I expect he will not be a career 23% shooter (Crosby and Selanne, for instance are about career 15 and a half shooters). He made a couple great stick checks in the game and made them on players who seemed genuinely surprised The Nuge had managed them. He has a certain striking quickness, like a coiled cobra at times, and it is helping him offer a strong helping hand in turning over pucks in the O zone while maintaining a strong presence in the D zone. I think the cult of Larsson might be slowly fading into the dark forest at this point.

Taylor Hall - Probably should have had a goal to put 5 on the board for the Oil. The stop by Halak on the Ebs+Hallsie 2-on-0.5 was fine, but when you shoot back into the flow of the goalies movement, often times you will shoot it directly into the goalies sliding body. A little Bergeronian cut back across the net would have surely potted the goal, but you can't hate the kids instincts for one-timing the puck. He also had a clear-cut breakaway he missed on. For some reason Hallsie seems to love the simple backhand-deke-slip-it-5-hole move, but I'd love to see a little more variety or perhaps just a lazer beam blocker side.

Corey Potter - Continues to play well. He's very calm with the puck in almost every circumstance, and it's allowing him to escape his own zone on nearly every play, as he's making passes to guys in good spots to receive passes and using his opposite defensive partner exceptionally well. He got another assist in 19 minutes of ice - his production and big body package seem to become more and more a integral cog in the Oilers well-greased defensive machine.

Lennart Petrell - The Finn plays a surprisingly measured game when not forechecking, and rarely lets anyone get past him who shouldn't be. His icetime reached almost 13 minutes on the night, and he's still taking a regular PK shift and doing it like a boss too. I haven't seen a lot of offensive upside in terms of his instincts or individual skill level, but if you want a strong defensive, 4th line forward, there are definitely worse options.

Nikolai Khabibulin - What can be said that hasn't already been? He blockered a bunch of tough pucks into the right corner, and made a couple of impressive goal line stands when the Blues bigger bodies backed the Oilers into the crease. He's in a dog fight for MVP with The Nuge and King Flowness, but considering the previous season, the fact that he's delivering a league leading performance is still hard to fathom. Someone check his water bottle.


Halak flip-flopped from playing average to outstanding, but the Oilers D was up the task, and the kids are still producing. There was no real dip in puck movement when switching tot he two call-up Dmen, and Khabibulin kept the communism out (or the Mongols, depending on your wall).

The Boston Bruins are 29th in the league, and the Oilers are 2nd in the league. Drink in that fine flavour, ladies and gentlemen. Drink it in.


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