Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Edmonton Oilers Postgame 8: The Kids Are Alright

A 'The Who' song, a 'The Who' documentary, and now a Academy nominated major motion picture.
Sometimes we forget the flesh and blood aspect of hockey. We become fixated on numbers and strategy, we lament cap costs and dealt picks, and the hockey player takes on the aspect of a mystical number generator. There is a disconnect between the average fan and the living, breathing pro-athlete that sometimes is hard to bridge. They live in a different stratosphere of cash, status, and fame, and every time you spot Smid shopping in Edmonton Center, sometimes you have to remind yourself he's just a likeable Czech dude with a goofy smile.

I bring this up because of some of the treatment we've seen recently towards our much vaunted prospect. Arguments are made for cap reasons mostly; RNH staying up past game 9 ensures his entry level contract starts this season, which would grant him UFA eligibility by 25, and perhaps more importantly, his first pay raise before the '14-'15 season. I have a major beef with this line of thinking that goes beyond the typical 'it may stagnate his growth' argument. The Nuge is a human being first and foremost, and what do you think it says to the kid if he scores a point per game in his first NHL stint and he still gets sent down. How could Nugent-Hopkins possibly have performed any better during his first 8 games? He's 22nd in the league for points, and leads rookies in goals and points as well. If the Oilers sent him down now, it would mean that there was basically no real chance for him staying with the big club, and in fact are more or less liars for even indicating there was a chance he could stick.

Honestly I thought the Oilogopshere was done with all this talk, but then I see an opinion piece like this: Why Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Should Go Back To Red Deer. An opinion I doubt the management staff of the Oilers share at this point, and an opinion that doesn't seem well grounded in any likely reality.

Of course there was a hockey game played tonight, and unlike some of the snoozers we have witnessed the Oilers grind out early, this had plenty of excitement and hitting. Vancouver seemed to still expect the Oilers to play as some manifestation of last seasons, deep-diving, bottom of the barrel Oilers squad, and was not ready to meet the Oilers level of intensity. As the physical intensity amped up, the Oilers didn't back down, but were definitely getting the spike-end of the nail-through-a-board. Our lineup isn't particularly big up front, with a couple of smurfs, and the rest average sized at best. Petrell is one of the lone big bodies, and it shows when he collides with people. Petrell's physical contributions have definitely not been lost on the coaching staff either, as he's seeing a more regular shift, and a shift in the dying moments as well.

Speaking of Petrell's contributions, another sure-fire formula for successful Oilers hockey is the continuation of the strong special teams play. The Oilers PK was lights out, and for all the Sedin sisters fancy cross-box and cross-seam passing, the D core and forwards sold out constantly, throwing guts and shoulders and butts into bruise-shaping slapshots. The Canuckleheads managed a meager 1 shot in 3 power play attempts, and entering the game the Canuck PP was ranked 5th in the league. The Oilers, in retrospect, are now ranked 4th in the league on the PK (91.4%). This is in stark contrast to last years prison guards, who were an abysmal 77%, good for 29th in the league. Even if the Oilers fell back to middle of the pack, this kind of improvement should mean a substantially better point total when the dust settles.

Aside from the special teams, the reason we won the game was because our kids outplayed everyone they were matched against. They probably would have had another 3 points split evenly if Cory Schneider hadn't blind-and-retarded robbed Eberle's point blank slamjob that was orchestrated by The Nuge's composite conductors baton. As it stood, they finished +2 across the board, and had 5 points as a unit, including Hall's GWG. Perhaps even a little sweeter that their quick strike offence was the straw that sent the Luuuu to the showers. Tough times for the franchise goalie signed until the rapture.

Khabibulin is playing a brand of hockey that even his most jaded enemy (see Tyler Dellow) must admit is at a very high level. He made 35 stops on 37 shots (.946), and for long stretches near the end of the game seemed to be the only calm Oiler left on the ice. Doesn't hurt that the Oilers blocked an astounding 31 shots on the night, either. I suppose once and a while that extra experience counts for something other than decaying reflexes. When the opposing goalie lets in 3 in 4 shots (Luuu's performance in the second period), it looks like sometimes that's going to be enough. Now how long can it last? Till the post season? One can dream...

Finally, a couple of scares. When I saw Whitney go down, I'm sure I wasn't the only Oiler fan to make asinine, knee-jerk statements like 'He's finished' or 'his career is over' after watching the replay of him breakdancing on ice. I guess we've just been pounded by injuries so often that it just seems inevitable every on-ice mishap is actually an exploded ACL or a bruised brain. In actuality, Whitney's career is not over:
"Bit of a sprained knee, I think he's going to be fine." - Renney on Whitney whose status is day-to-day
Samwise Gagner also hobbled off the ice at one point, and there was still no word on Whitney, so it was a 'throw your hands up in the air' moment, as if the hockey gods had once again deserted us. Sure enough the black storm clouds pulled away to reveal a light rain and some clouds. Gagner tweaked his ankle, and is fine. Not expected to miss any time.

Individuals and a conclusion after the hop.

Sam Gagner - I decided to start off the festivities with the player who perhaps impressed me the least. In Michael Jackson contrast to the previous game he played, he was constantly turning the puck over by trying to execute virtually every pass *through* someones legs. It was as if he had discovered a top secret technique to pass pucks through solid objects only to realize he actually can't alter the laws of physics. It was strange to see a player look preseason flavoured after looking in game shape just a few days previous. Maybe it was just an off night, but Renney only gave Gagner 11:52 in ice, and he only managed one shot. Let's hope we don't see another Jekyl and Hyde run of Good Gagner, Bad Gagner.

Taylor Hall - If Hall shortening up on his stick to receive a pass in stride doesn't make you giggle and clap like an autistic seal, then you are probably a normal human being. For the rest of us die-hards, however, the sheer fanciness of that kind of play sends our hearts a flutter, and visions of Messier two-point-oh dancing through our cerebellum. I'm going to guess at least 2/3rds of last years goals were somewhat greasy, and tonight's was no real exception. He's got a basset-hound nose for the net, and when his legs get churning, he draws penalties, beats defenders outside, and freight trains opposing goalies. I for one hope we get to enjoy it until Hallsie sprouts a few greys in his flow.

Jordan Eberle - Finally put that clutch missile launcher to good use. Sometimes it really makes me wonder why his dipsy-diddles so much when he's got a photon torpedo of a shot. His quick release snipe hopefully was the big red OPEN THE FLOODGATES button that Jordan had been searching for. He simply gets too many good opportunities per game to be snake bitten like that. Now we just need consistency.

The Nuge - Might as well include 'he of downy whisker face' as he's known by the Wampalalu tribe, as he played another great, 3-zone game. His finely tuned, elite-level hand-eye (Hall and Ebs have it too) was knocking down pucks and intercepting passes all night. I have watched him closely in the defensive zone, and he has a sublime ability to interrupt aerial passes with nothing but raw reflexes. He finished 50% in the dot as well, and even though he (and the other kids) are still being somewhat sheltered, his game is already so good. How good is it going to be in 4-5 years?

Ladislav Smid - Played about 21 minutes of solid, Smid hockey. Every once and a while I find his zone escapes to be a bit too meat and potatoes, but he definitely has gotten better at that as he's gained a few tree rings. There's a lot to like in a guy who will play physical, sacrifice the body, and generally wear his heart on his sleeve. He's a beauty, and if he's our #5 guy, we probably are getting a lot closer to a kiss on Lord Stanley's silver lips.

Corey Potter - Don't look now, but he played a mammoth 27:37, which includes 2.5 shorthanded and 3.5 on the PP. It was mostly due to the loss of Whitney early, but I have to say for his first real pressure test, he did an admirable job. Sometimes it just seems strange to me that a guy who so clearly would be at least a #5-6 on half the teams in the league can float around the A for so long and eventually be had for nothing. He was +1 with an assist, and continues to cement a regular shift, stall, and paycheque with his stalwart play.

Nikolai Khabibulin - Made an absolute daddy-doodle-dandy (say that 5 times fast) of a save off a Salo point-blank-Columbian-style-execution shot, and was full marks considering the amount of black caoutchouc he faced. I am, like most of the extended Oilers community, waiting for his imminent demise. We've seen him play for long enough to know he just can't keep this up. Can he? If the season ended now he might receive the Vezina, how bizzare of a thought is that...

Shawn Horcoff - Still playing tough minutes and playing them well. The line as a whole is doing very undervalued work that allows the kids to take most of the offensive zone draws, and in general is shutting down the opposing teams top lines - at least enough to make every forget about NK's alcohol conviction. He had a goal and played the most minutes of any forward on the Oilers. Scorcoff is back, yes? I like.

Lennart Petrell - Needs a nickname pretty badly, and Lenny doesn't seem like it's going to cut it. He's got a big solid frame (6'3, 220+) and isn't afraid to slam it around a bit like a pinball in the hockey machine. That kind of truculence is something that is definitely absent in the other three lines for the most part. I'm not sure how much offence was expected from the fourth line this year, but it might be nice to see these guys grease-bag something into the cage for all their hard-work effort. One thing at a time I guess.


The Oilers rode a hot kid line into the third with a 2 goal cushion, and managed to weather some tough, concerted pressure by a Canucks team that might finally understand we aren't going to be walked over any more. I think the Oilers as a whole can take a bit of body-slam as long as they keep on winning the battle that actually counts: the one on the score clock.



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