Monday, January 2, 2012

Edmonton Oilers Postgame 38: Special Education

Are the Oilers becoming unplugged, or plugging in?
The Hockey Gods, every once and a while, have to turn up some improbable results to keep mortals on their toes. Tonight was such a game. The Oilers, in the midst of a 7 game road losing streak, staggered into the United Center against the best team in the NHL (quantitatively) and improbably came away with two shiny points.

The special teams figured prominently in the game, and while the Oilers have been a sack of Gypsy piss most of the season, their special teams have been surprisingly special. Their PP is #2 ranked, and their PK #11 ranked, and this is in sharp contrast to Chi-town, who is 15 and 27 respectively. On this night, that special teams battle made all the difference as the Oilers finished 2/5 and the Hawks 0/5. For a season filled with negatives so far, you certainly can't say much has gone wrong with special teams execution, especially considering they ended up 27th on the PP and 29th on the PK last year.

Both goaltenders had a hand in the result, with Crawford and Dubnyk letting in some stinky business, but Dubnyk ultimately made that one extra save. In terms of the other five orange and blue lotto engineers on the ice, I felt the Oilers carried play fairly well into the third period, at which point Chicago realized they might lose the game to the lowly oil droppings, and turned their game up to a 11. When they turned it up the ice became a seesaw with the fat kid in the Oilers end. The Hawks beaned Doobers with 23 shots in the third period, and he managed to redeem some of his earlier eau du fromage with a more stable, consistent effort.

In the forward ranks, it was a good news, bad news kind of night. I'm sure anyone reading this blog will be aware of the fact that Nugent took a tumble in the second that caused him to injure his shoulder, and early word is that the injury will prevent him from playing tomorrow. There is even a suggestion floating around that a forward may be called up. If I was a betting man, and I am, I would guess the first selection for call-up will be Magnum Paajarvi, who finally got a pro goal this season. His early OKC numbers are alright: 7gp 1-6-7 +3. I think expectations have been tempered somewhat with Pony, but if he ever figures it out he could be a bigger, faster version of Ryan Jones (yea, I just said that). On the good news front was Hall, and he continues to generate offence on a nightly basis. After watching him for about 100 games now, I have really come to understand the success of Hall's game. He is a relentless player in that he's constantly in attack mode for every second he's on the ice. His hunger and compete level might actually outstrip his skill levels (which are already ridiculously high), and I might suggest this is why he actually posted better numbers in the OHL Playoffs than in the regular season. If RNH is out for any extended stretch (I want that damn Calder trophy), Hall is the guy who will have to take his game to an even higher level (beyond ludicrous, perhaps Plaid).

Defensively, it was also a rainstorm with the sun visible kind of day. I'm starting with the bad news first again, and that is of course the injury to the Oilers number one defenceman, Tom Gilbert. I still see some real fucking looney tunes posting disparaging remarks vis a vis Gilbert's creamy insides or his lacy sock garter, but these are simply lunkheads regurgitating unexamined expectations from a sloppier, younger Tom Gilbert. Make no mistake, the Oilers were a Chinese fire drill in their own end with Tommy-gun playing the best hockey of his career, and it certainly won't get better with him out. He was eating big minutes in all situations, and he is a central figure in any hope the Oilers have of climbing back into a low-seed playoff race. The good news was from a strange source: Andy Sutton. The big man has shown a strange knack for timely offensive plays, and he's a mountain of muscle in the own-zone. If he was our number 6 guy with 2nd unit PK time, I think the that he has shown he wont shoot you in the foot. Playing third or fourth in the lineup, however, illustrates a continuing problem for the Oilers back end: not enough high end talent.

In the end, the Oilers gutted out an improbable victory, but I felt that it was a deserved one. The Hawks dominated the third, but score effects work strongly against the Oilers here, and the first two periods were even or possibly weighted in the Oilers advantage.

Some names and breakdown after the anchor tag.

Andy Sutton - Played 18:32 with 3 SOG, a timely goal, and 3 solid minutes on the PK. One thing I love about Sutton's game is the fact that he really hammers dudes in the down low puck battles. He lays hands on them sort of how I expect a drunk bear might: big powerful, lumbering meat anvils punching guys in the neck and back and ribs. He starts out at a high level of violence, and when he confirms the refs are allowing those kinds of gloved liver shots for opposing forwards mucking for pucks, he simply rolls with it. As long as the refs allow it, it brings a certain perverse satisfaction to watching Sutton. The only thing I miss is the gargantuan open ice hits Sutton used to throw that are the stuff of youtube legend.

Taylor Hall - Played a very good, Taylor Hall type game. In his last three games he's had 5, 4 and 5 shots on goal, and Hall is the kind of guy with the kind of release and shot velocity that pretty much guarantees some ugly and some pretty goals as long as he keeps on firing the puck. Tonight's goal was of the more ugly variety, but he had good chances and battled for the puck all in three zones. He's still settling into his growing body in the NHL but it's nice to see Hall's collision avoidance radar has been working well most of the season. Anyone watching the Oilers regularly can vouch for the fact that guys regularly try to run Hallsie, and he rarely gets hit. If I had a nickel for every time Debrusk said 'Hall saw it at the last second' I'd have like $0.45.

Devan Dubnyk - There is a reason that Dubnyk has only started a little over a dozen games this season: he simply hasn't been good enough. I was a big booster for him last year, as he played some excellent rookie goaltender hockey in posting a .916 on a last place team. This year, on a marginally improved Oilers squad, he's .902. Like I said in the last write-up, I believe the big kid will get a run of starts as long as the Oilers can win. Khabibulin seems to be falling off his game a bit, and once again I guess the Oilers would like to have a clearer understanding of what the long term Oilers goaltending situation looks like. Right now it's got the clarity of river water near a sewage outtake.

Eric Belanger - Zero shots on goal and -2. I lauded the signing at the start of the season but once again Tambellini proves he is probably the worst small market FA signer in the NHL. I gave Belanger plenty of slack to start the season but he's on pace for 20 points and is still getting regular power play time. Call me crazy, but a guy getting paid 3x1.75 cannot be getting outscored by guys like Ben Eager. Darcy freakin' Hordichuk has a better Points per 60. The first positive I have seen from the coaching staff is he is finally seeing some shifts in between the 4th liners. I'd love for the dude to improve, but until he can show us he knows how to execute some offensive plays, the 4th line is right where he belongs.

Ales Hemsky - There was some chatter after the game about Hemsky letting up on an iced puck with 11 seconds to go which resulted in a Dzone puck drop. Personally based on the look on his face, he was exhausted, and while I don't want to make excuses for Hemsky necessarily, I felt like he was interfered with as he went into the corner. Really I'm just concerned about the lack of night in night out offence from Hemmer. It seems like once the spotlight went off Hemsky, the production has been all over the place. It would pain me to great end to see Hemsky go, but right now he's not helping the Oilers win hockey games. I hope its more of an ebb-and-flow-of-puckluck type thing versus my-shoulders-dun-work-so-guud type thing. Ales Hemsky has gone pointless in his last NINE games and is -5 in the stretch to boot. What the fuck is going on?

Ryan Jones - Continues to be a useful hockey player. He works hard and has a knack for the loose puck that has allowed him to be successful almost regardless of who he is teamed up with. For a guy who was very much on the fence for the signing, I have to say Jones has been one of the lone bright spots for the Oilers this year, and is definitely delivering over value. One thing I might caution, however, is that he's shooting over 19% right now, which is a sight higher than his career 14.4% mark. Still, the flow seems to be for real. Long live the flow.

Jordan Eberle - Ignoring all the brain-washed WayneGretz Squee-lers, Eberle continues to provide entertainment and offence every game. I've raved about his passing ability before, and every time I do he seemingly has another gorgeous no-looker to drop on Oilers fans. At this point I think Eberle has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's the Oilers most complete offensive player. Aside from the obvious fact that he's leading the team in points, he simply continues to excel with the puck in tight NHL confines, and is equally dangerous passing or shooting. His 41 points are 9th in the league, and he represents a legitimate threat to finish in the top-10 in NHL scoring, the first time an Oiler has done that since Doug Weight did it in '00-'01.


The Oilers played one of the leagues top teams tough for the first two stanzas and Dubnyk stood tall in the third to allow the Oilers to pull out a desperately needed W. I don't expect it will mean much in the long run, but if the season is to turn around, it isn't a bad place to start beating the top team in the league in their own barn.


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