Friday, November 25, 2011

Edmonton Oilers Postgame 22: Afternoon Delight

This is Amber Heard. She is both proof for and against a god.
For: She's into girls.
Against: She's into girls.
Much ballyhooing was made of the 'since time immemorial' curse of the Minnesota Wild. We had not escaped from St. Paul with a victory in the last 17 attempts (0-14-3), and they showed a remarkable statistic that the Oilers had held a lead for something short of 90 minutes out of a possible 1000 or so. That tells you how badly the Oilers had been put on the rack and stretched by the suffocating no-budget defence-first system.

Thankfully, relief came early for the Oilers, as Jebbers crafted a cute little goal by button-hooking off an outside drive and sliding the puck into the blue that Smyth jam-jobbed behind Harding. It was exactly the kind of mixture of skill and sweat that a dynamic duo of Eberle and Smyth can bring to the table on a nightly basis. Smyth creates havoc, and Eberle distributes and occasionally snipes.

Ever since the kid line has been broken up, there seems to be a slightly better mixture of attributes between the top 6 -- not that there was anything glaring before -- but each line has a responsible centerman (RNH/Horcs), a guy who can distribute (Hemsky/Eberle), and a wrecking ball/garbage man (Smyth/Hall). It has also meant that, generally speaking, Hall is forced to face tougher competition. A quick check shows that this is true, as Hall's Corsi Rel QoC (Relative Corsi Quality of Competition: a measure of how often the player faces opponents who are outshooters), is splitting away from his former linemates (becoming a larger positive, indicating he's facing tougher opposition). This isn't really a bad thing, as Hall has been one of the toughest defensive forwards on the team, something that generally is overlooked when talking about the Kingston Cannonball.

Moving down the lines, in lazy fashion, we arrive at the potpourri line, which features The Frenchman, The Hair, and The Hobbit, and once again there wasn't a lot of offence to speak about in their game this afternoon. Gagner and Belanger picked up their 4th and 5th assists of the season, which coincidentally is their point total, and it was as mucky a pair of assists as you'd ever see. The team would probably be performing at nearly an elite level right now if Gagner, Belanger, and perhaps Pajaarvi were performing any where near their previous expectations. Of the 15 points handed out this afternoon, 2 went to defenders (Pecks and Gilby), and 11 went to the top 6. Of course you're not going to see big numbers from your third line every game, but until Jones was bumped down, the bottom 6 had a combined one goal. That's not a lot of offensive depth, folks, and it will have to change if we will succeed this year in the unspoken about place where a silver cup is won.

Winding back to the back-end, we immediately see what a glorious, beautiful thing it is for Whitney to push Peckham into the bottom pairing, and while Whitney was actually kind of a bag of suck (compared to pre-injury Whitney), Whitney with his knob turned to suck is still a sight better than the coarse, simple game that Peckham is turning out these days. I was a huge fan, but I'm coming to think there is some kind of brain parasite living in my buildings water supply, a parasite that gives me bad optics for bottom pairing blueliners. I can't figure out where all my praise for Peckham went, but his ability to escape the zone while maintaining Oiler puck possession is almost non-existent at this point. Whitney played 16, and Peckham 18, but as Whitney eases back into a healthy state of mind (if this is possible), I would expect that see-saw of time-on-ice to reverse dramatically.

Finally, the Russian bear continues his strong play, giving the Oilers exactly what we need. A .938 effort keeps him firmly in the 3rd spot overall for save percentage, and now it just remains to be seen what kind of endurance we can expect out of the grizzled vet. Making the unspoken-of-place will be determined heavily by how well our goaltenders can maintain this level of play.

Solo selections and a curtain call after the dashed line.

Ryan Whitney - There was this sense with Whitney on the ice that there was going to be a bit of chaos in the defensive zone. Something about his obvious reduction in foot speed or perhaps a tentativeness in his stance or posture, I'm not entirely sure. But I expected a bit of chaos, and we got it. This is quite similar to what happened last time he came back from injury: he simply looked rusty. I would say the jury is still out on whether or not Whitney can regain top two form, period. He's always looked a little detached and lazy on the ice, but big bodies like his can often appear that way, and the laid back style also allows big minutes (Lidstrom plays somewhat in this manner). We will probably be fine as long as he can fill in the #3 slot effectively. If not... I'd prefer not to think about it.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins - Made one of the first blatant mistakes of his young career, getting stripped of the puck by the Oiler slayer PM Bouchard (40 points in 40 games, somehow). Honestly, he's been so good on both sides of center that you could immediately sense through the ether that Oilers fans, bloggers, and Edmonton media were already giving him a free pass for his mistake. I watched with interest the next time he took the ice to see if I could spot anything tentative creeping in, but fortunately he looked exactly the same to me. The mental game is important, and all signs point to The Nuge having a clean and tidy headspace.

Jeff Petry - I'm not sure how much of it was his partner Whitney, but Petry struggled a bit in his own zone today, mostly in terms of losing a couple more puck battles than we have seen in the past. He played about 17 minutes, and while there weren't any real glaring difficulties he had on the ice, he just seemed a step behind the play most of the night. Until Potter comes back, he's likely going to keep on being thrown into tougher situations, and hopefully he can keep on taking steps forward.

Ladislav Smid - His scoreline still reads with one lonesome assist, but anyone just looking at the scoreline is going to miss virtually all of his benefit to a hockey team. He has become adept at maintaining possession for the Oilers while escaping the opposing fore-check. Make no mistake, this aspect of the transition game is basically as important as the defensive portion. For a team like the Oilers, which is so obviously top-heavy, getting the rubbercake into the forwards hands is tremendously important as we have seen what RNH, Eberle, and Hall can all do when given decent break-out passes. Add in the fact that he leads the league in blocked shots, and is top ten in goofy smiles, we are set.

Jordan Eberle - Yawn just another two point night for the baby-faced assassin. I'm honestly running out of good things to say about him, all he does is put up digits on the scoreboard. Every shift he's a threat to make something happen, and probably most surprising, he's one of the best Oilers at maintaining puck possession along the boards. I say it is surprising because he's small and not of the fleetest foot, but he is slippery as a buttered weasel. Hall is quite good as well, but Eberle is more of a threat to cut back and distribute from his forehand.

Nikolai Khabibulin - Honestly I didn't think Nik had much of a tough night at all. There was plenty of junk he had to deal with, and a couple of scrambles and stops on old evil-eye, but otherwise a pretty ho-hum effort, and the goaltender stopping everything he should. It's been a mark of how well our team has been playing recently that our goaltenders do not need to be spectacular to get the W for the good guys. That said, he was still full marks for the subtle part of the goaltenders game: sometimes stuff like rebound control simply makes games look easier then they really were.

Taylor Hall - Had a strong game, and was a part of a number of dominating shifts where the line went spin-cycle on the young Wild D-core. Hall has an exceptional cycle possession game, and this is a big feature of how he generates offence and especially assists from his game. This bodes well, as I expect he will be able to improve in this area as he fills his body out from big-boy-teen to powerhouse-man. His scoreline was solid, 1-1-2, +2, 3 SOG, 18:14 TOI. If he keeps this up, he's going to crush last years scoring rate.

Conclusion

Another win that was full marks. The Oilers controlled a ton of play off the cycle, and considering all of the cards stacked against them (on the road, the Wild curse, the Oilers road woes so far), it was a complete, fun-to-watch effort from the Oilers.

I leave you with a sweet quote from our hired knuckles, Hordichuk:
"I think he was a little bit frustrated that he might have to square off in his own building, and get embarrassed.” - Hordichuk on Staubitz
 ...and a little more Amber Heard...

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