Well that was lousy timing. I had to turn down a ticket to see the Columbus game last week (goals, comeback, win) so my friend took me to last night's shutout loss to Colorado instead. It was a painful friggin' game to watch, a third consecutive trouncing by a Northwest rival in just 4 days, and a second straight whitewash of an Oiler club that suddenly can't find the net with both hands.
I am reluctant to write the truly scathing review that on its surface this game deserves, simply because of the flu bug that has ravaged the Oilers at a hectic time in their schedule. 4 games in 6 nights in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton was always going to be a tough hill to climb, but when two-thirds of the team either has the flu, is coming down with the flu, or is recovering from the flu, such a travel schedule becomes an unscalable mountain.
On this night a 1-0 deficit that persisted from the opening sequence proved insurmountable, and the game was frustrating in the extreme. Colorado immediately dropped into a five-man trap any time the Oilers gained possession in their own zone, and the Copper and Blue had one hell of a time getting through the neutral zone all night. Avalanche players clogged passing lanes and had extraordinary success preventing simple shoot-ins, knocking pucks out of the air and turning the play around. By game's end I was spitting that if I were the coach the team would spend an entire practice doing shoot-ins, cuz they were nothing short of dreadful at it last night. They couldn't get the puck behind the Colorado blueliners, and on those <<<< 50% of occasions they succeeded in getting the puck deep they had neither the speed nor physical aggression to win it back. Some (most?) of that was flu, but their execution sucked.
Oilers also had lots of trouble in the faceoff circle. I counted no fewer than eight occasions where the linesman tossed a home team player from the dot (Cogliano 4, Gagner 3, Horcoff 1) before a token Avalanche got the boot in the game's dying seconds. Not sure what was up with that. Suffice to say on a night when pick plays and clutch-and-grab were happening all over the ice and it was apparently legal to drive an opponent's head into the boards (happened twice, with a helping elbow each time), the zebras weren't much help. But unlike, say, the Calgary game, the officials had little to do with the outcome of this one. The Avs were the better team in all three zones.
The lack of penalties allowed Quinn to regularly roll the lines. Up front, even strength time-on-ice ranged from 14:50 for Gagner centring the first unit to 9:48 for Cogliano pivoting the fourth. O'Sullivan, Horcoff and Penner soaked up time on both special teams so all wound up around 18 minutes. On the blue the range at evens was pretty tight, from Smid's 19:11 to the flu-ridden Visnovsky's 14:04. Gilbert and Grebeshkov got the lion's share of special teams work so led the squad in overall ice time at 24:14 and 22:16 respectively. Certainly all 18 skaters were given the opportunity to contribute. Whether they did or not was another matter.
I had planned to do Staples-style ratings of each player but have scrapped the idea as this nasty flu bug surely affects various guys differently, to the point that it's likely unfair to grade / degrade / D-grade them. Line-by-line reviews after the jump:
Penner - Gagner - Hemsky: Didn't create nearly enough. Penner had a couple of decent shots but didn't appear to have much energy. Not much apparent chemistry between the other two. Hemsky looked frustrated, a common problem with him. He had the least ice time on the line (16:30) and the shortest shifts (44 seconds per) suggesting Ales as a flu candidate. Gagner had a tough night (Oilers were outshot 9-4 at evens with Sam on the ice) but deserves props for standing up to Galiardi after the latter had taken liberties with Chorney. Between Gagner (7/12, 58%) and Penner (4/5, 80%) the trio had a solid night on the dot.
Comrie - Horcoff - O'Sullivan: Despite being victimized for the opening goal after Visnovsky inadvertently "checked" Horcoff causing a loose puck in the slot, this was perhaps Oilers' best line (faint praise btw), largely because Horcoff was to my eye the best Oiler on the ice. Shawn showed a real jump in his step that had been lagging a week or so ago -- foot injury? the flu? -- but he was one of the few Oilers capable of winning a race to a loose puck, and negated a couple of dangerous looking counterattacks by reading, reacting, and racing back. He was the only Oiler forward to record a positive shot differential (10 for, 9 against, on a night Oilers were outshot 20-30 at evens). O'Sullivan had his moments, none of them on the point of the powerplay where he has been an unmitigated disaster in my view. Comrie looked like a guy coming off the flu, did some decent work down low but had no legs to join a potential odd-man rush.
Jacques - Brule - Nilsson: This group mostly held their own but were victimized on the second goal when Oilers were pressing and Wolski got behind the makeshift defensive pairing of Grebeshkov and Chorney. They had a physical presence, as JFJ and Brule co-led the Oilers with 3 hits apiece. JFJ landed a beauty on Clark in the early going that had Clark looking over his shoulder and even throwing snow a couple times later on. The trio generated a glorious chance to stabilize the game on their first shift, moments after Colorado had opened the scoring, but Nilsson slightly flubbed JFJ's nifty backhand feed across the goal mouth that may have been the best pass by an Oiler the entire game. The Swedish Calgarian skated miles on this night, but generated little magic.
Moreau - Cogliano - Stortini: Not a productive unit at all, seemingly mismatched. The trio generated just one shot at evens, a typical "waste one from the boards" shot by Moreau. The Oilers' captain once again displayed terrible decision making with the puck, a long-term problem which I fear is never going to change. To my eye the guy doesn't use his linemates nearly enough, preferring to skate into 1-on-2-or-3 traps and losing possession or trying a "surprise" shot from a terrible angle that doesn't surprise anybody, least of all me as the puck rings the boards and out of the zone with his teammates scrambling to back-pedal. To be an effective fourth-liner Ethan needs to play and actually execute the cycle game, but he's far too impatient. Stortini played his usual robust game on the starboard side, but the puck didn't spend near enough time down low where he's most effective. Cogliano looked kind of lost out there, perhaps flu or more likely due to the fact he had his head driven into the boards on his first shift. I never saw one burst of speed from Andrew, whose skating "should" be a factor that sets him apart.
Grebeshkov - Gilbert: Another no-hitter from the puck-moving pair. Gilbert was much better than he had been on the weekend, and showed the best burst of speed of any Oiler when he easily turned a breaking 2-on-1 into a controlled 2-on-2 in about three long strides. Didn't generate much offensively however, and all 3 of his shot attempts were blocked. Grebs is in one of those runs where his first touch is to pull the pin on the grenade. A couple of brutal giveaways, one in the slot which would have been a perfect pass had he been wearing a white sweater, and another at centre which led directly to the 2-0 goal. Some good plays as well, just not enough of them to outweigh the bad.
Smid - Visnovsky: Both were culpable on the all-too-decisive opening goal, as Smid made a pass to nobody in the corner and then Vis made matters worse by knocking the puck off of Horcoff's stick only to have it squirt off of Hannan's skate into immediate danger. Smid played a more effective offensive game than we've seen, firing 3 shots on goal and thus quadrupling his season total. Unfortunately his best chance was blocked in front. Ladi was the only D to be on for more EV shots for than against (11-10). The guy is not devoid of offensive instincts and I will fearlessly go on the record as predicting this guy will score a Goal sometime before the end of the calendar year. Visnovsky had a quiet night which was cut short by flu symptoms.
Strudwick - Chorney: Egads. Too many weaknesses in this pair to enumerate. Suffice to say Oilers were outshot 10-2 with Strudwick on the ice, 11-4 with Chorney. A team-high 2 giveaways apiece certainly didn't help matters. For some reason Quinn likes them on the PK a lot more than I do. Strudwick's telegraphed attempt to block the passing lane during a first-period 3v4 led directly to Khabibulin's best saves of the night off a Clark one-timer from the prime scoring area and a subsequent rebound to Hejduk. Chorney showed some things to like, especially his skating legs and his ability to make a decent breakout pass at speed.
Khabibulin: His minor puckhandling gaffe started the fire drill in the game's opening act, although he had no chance to stop the actual shot, a sniper's bullet off the stick of Hejduk. Wolski's speed beat Khabibulin across the crease on the second goal. I would place the cuplability for both goals on the defence pairs rather than the goalie. Indecisive puckhandling also led to a video review that went Oilers' way (for once); NK's work as a sweeper continues to underwhelm. As a stopper he's just fine; he made a number of fine saves to keep the score at 1-0 for 50 minutes, and was not the reason Oilers lost this one. He definitely had the tougher night's work.
And with that the cushion from the 6-2-1 start is already wasted, just as a three-game regulation losing streak torpedoed last year's 4-0 start. The Oilers have played twice as many games home as away and are effectively .500. It's hard not to feel pessimistic this morning, but it's too early to say if this is due to the flu or a more general malaise on a squad lacking sufficient prime-time players.
Next up: Detroit @ Edmonton, Thursday night.