I can't believe the Oilers didn't lose. I just can't believe the Oilers didn't lose. They were roadkill, and yet we're two games above .500, undefeated against parts of the division that aren't Calgary, 2-0 against the teams I had first and in the Northwest preseason... that really shouldn't have happened.
Roberto Luongo, the anthropomorphic personification of a .850 save percentage, had a reasonable if not fantastic night. There were no familiar Luongo-esque five-bell saves but none of the sort goals that have been killing him and the Canucks. It was a workmanlike effort. He didn't make big saves because he didn't face the big shots. For the most part, the team in front of him was effortlessly superior. The first and third periods belonged to the Canucks. The second was, at best, even. That game was u-g-l-y and Quinn ain't got no alibi.
Then the Son of Dave popped one over that greasy bastard in Vancouver's goal. Ballgame. What the hell?
Nikolai Khabibulin was the first star and earned it, for once. Earned it enough that I'm not even going to mention his nickname. Every game Khabibulin has played as an Oiler has been better than the previous, going from "awful" to "somewhat awful" and now to "HE'S WON THE STANLEY CUP!!!". I can almost believe that he deliberately let Kyle "West Coast Fatso" Wellwood score with no time left on the clock just so he could gut a division rival, like he graduated from the Reggie Dunlop School of You've Gotta Fuck With 'Em-Ology. By the time Ethan Moreau is taking the Stanley Cup this summer, Khabibulin will be making so many saves his sweat will be used to irrigate the Sahara.
The Oilers escaping with their lives after the stunts they pulled beggars belief. Andrew Cogliano whipping a Janne Niinimaa Memorial suicide pass to Hemsky with time winding down, nearly getting the flu-ridden Czech killed and leading to a decent chance for Vancouver. Jason Strudwick virtually whenever he was on the ice. Khabibulin making two unconscious saves when he wasn't even looking at the puck, or getting bailed out by Ladislav Smid, who's quietly turning into Edmonton's Barret Jackman. The book on Smid always used to be "all the physical skills, but the play doesn't slow down for him and he's lacking consistency." I'm not convinced that's true any longer.
One play in particular comes to mind for Smid. It was about a minute after Gagner's goal and the Canucks were coming back on the attack. Most of the Oilers napped a bit and Alexandre Burrows thundered over the Oilers line near the left wing boards, one on one against Smid. Smid had been playing a little too much to centre and had forward momentum that he was having trouble with trying to break into a backwards skate. As a result, he was well out of position to play Burrows effectively, being too far back and just trying to keep himself between Burrows and the goal.
The coach's mantra there is "play the man, not the puck," but if Ladislav Smid tried to play the man there he'd be picking his jock off the ice. Instead, he got his stick out and, quick-as-you-please, poked the puck off Burrows's stick. Burrows corralled it but was slowed right down, Smid closed and played him more traditionally, and the Canucks didn't even get a shot out of it. Smid had made a mistake but was so smart making up for it he turned a minus into a plus. From a top-four defensive defenseman like Smid, that's exactly the ability you want and that's exactly what he's demonstrated since about game 60 last season.
Moreover - and I realize I'm tempting the hockey gods by saying this - I'm starting to like Taylor Chorney. He's a rookie, undersized offensive defenseman and there ain't nobody who develops as infuriatingly as an undersized offensive defenseman. He shouldn't be in the NHL and everybody knows it. But what you look for from a kid like Chorney are signs that he knows what mistakes he's making and he's correcting them. It's happening for Chorney. He's not Dan Boyle, but he's getting there. The most significant thing about Chorney is that he's stifling himself offensively and focusing on his own zone. There haven't been any of the dashing rushes fans at North Dakota and to a lesser extent in Springfield have been used to, but if Chorney can tread water in his own zone it's exciting to think about what'll happen when he has enough confidence to cut loose. He played 14:34 with Jason Strudwick, who's been in the NHL an awful long time, and for the second straight game looked better than his erstwhile mentor.
I'm concentrating on the positive. We won. It's easy to be happy. If only there was some way that I could sum up the mediocre performances which dominated the Oilers tonight? OH NOW I REMEMBER!
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three, Although When the Canucks Lose, Really, We All Win.
18th Star: RW Ales Hemsky. He had the flu and he probably shouldn't have been playing. A night where a shattered, exhausted, stuffed-up forward who's had kinda a crappy season anyway is playing nearly twenty ineffective minutes while Robert Nilsson, who looked fantastic Saturday, plays eight is a weird night. Hemsky's reached the point where he plays at least fifteen minutes a game because he's Ales Hemsky, not because he necessarily deserves to any given night. But if his play tonight was any indication how he felt, he should have sat at home with a bottle of Southern Comfort and a trashy movie about zombies with no shirts on.
It's hard to blame the flu entirely for Hemsky's struggles, though, because as the game wore on Hemsky actually improved. That's pretty much the opposite of the Canonical Flu Game. By the third period, Hemsky was playing okay hockey and managing not to kill himself. He was robbed of an empty net goal by Alexander Edler's stick and Kerry Fraser's ineptitude, and he managed not to get decapitated when Andrew Cogliano set him up to get run so hard he'd come to in the Agricom. But when we watch Ales Hemsky, we shouldn't have to say "hooray! he was average."
19th Star: C Shawn Horcoff
I'm letting him slide for his missed breakaway in the second period. He was coming off a long shift and was actually on his way to the bench when the puck slithered almost by accident towards him. With a few steps to spare on the defender Horcoff pretty much had to go for it but, utterly bagged, whiffed on his deke and didn't end up making anything happen. Fair enough, but in a way it said a lot about his entire game. He really should have just whipped the puck at Luongo and hoped rather than going for a move that he had no chance of pulling off in that situation. Horcoff is not a flashy player and he will never make things happen on his own. He's at his best when he keeps it simple, plays fundamental hockey and never, ever makes a mistake. Go back to that, Shawn. Please.
20th Star: C Mike Comrie
He was not helped by playing on a line with Ethan Moreau, who skied a number of passes to Comrie including a very nice two-on-one. But Moreau killed Vancouver attacks and had a more responsible game than we're used to from him. It was like the Captain tapped Comrie on the shoulder, smiled at his own teammate in a friendly way, and said "we'll team up: I'll play hockey and you'll take the crappy penalties and skate like you're wearing a cement jockstrap".
I'm not so much focusing on what Comrie did badly as trying to think about what he did well. He was a minus on the powerplay, he was a minus minus at even strength. He never should have been on the man advantage judging by his career statistics but even strength outchancing is what Mike Comrie is for. If he's not doing that, he's not doing anything.
15 (!) points: Jason Strudwick
8 points: Mike Comrie, Nikolai Khabibulin
6 points: Jean-Francois Jacques
1 point: Tom Gilbert, Ales Hemsky
On Deck: Oilers! Blue Jackets! Scott Howson is back and he's pissed! Gilbert Brule is back and he's pissed in the other sense! Thursday at 7:30 Mountain, Sportsnet West and 630 CHED.