Edmonton - Phoenix post-game: Not a day to be working overtime

  

 Well that was a tough night at the office.

What the hey, it was a hockey night out with a good friend and all I had to pay for was the pregame meal at the always-reasonably-priced Thanh Thanh, so I'm certainly not complaining. The live game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Phoenix NHL Coyotes fluctuated somewhere between terrible and entertaining, but certainly not boring. Moreover we had something of a 2-for-1 with the Canada-USA gold medal game being displayed on the big screen. In the end I got to see not one or two but five different goalies allow at least one goal "they'd like to have back", a criminally-overused hockey cliche that actually means "Grandma coulda had that one even if she forgot her meds". This was not a banner night for the custodians of the cord cottage.

The Oilers' organization did its best to strike the right balance between the live game and the closed-circuit one. They showed the first period from Saskatoon in its entirety, then once the Oilers game started, featured occasional live updates during TV timeouts and a longer one during the first intermission (once the friggin' contests were over). We knew it was 3-3 entering the third, then during one of the timeouts we saw it had gotten to 5-3 and it seemed likely that had to be it, no way was Canada coming from two goals down in the last ten minutes against this team twice in a row. Well wouldn't you know but while play was underway below us, a roar went up from under the stands where some folks were hanging on the concourse watching Canada-USA on the small screens. I figured 5-4 but the update went up that it was actually 5-5, and better yet that Jordan Eberle had scored both of the goals in the last three minutes. The applause that rippled round the building was something special.

Once overtime got underway in 'Toon Town, they took the (correct) decision to run it live but muted on the big screen even as the live game carried on below, heard but not seen. Sure seemed like the majority of eyes in my vicinity were following the fates of the youngsters; I know mine were. All too soon that affair was decided in the purest tradition of "sudden death", the feed got switched off, and attention returned to the NHL game, by then in the last minute of the second period. To the fans' credit they got into the game in the third, starting up a bunch of chants and trying to make the best of it when it could have been very easy to get down on the team. The Oilers responded by at least making a game of it ...

 It sure didn't start out that way. After the first period I asked my pal who had stood out for him in a good way on the Oilers, and he responded "nobody". I perused my programme and found myself in agreement, not one player had distinguished himself in any way during that period. The low moment was a disastrous goal against off a neutral zone faceoff which wound up in our net in 4 seconds flat. It's worth reviewing in the video above for the breathtaking scope of its badness: bad positioning (Souray lined up on the wing on a 4v4 with just Gilbert back, but he for whatever reason stood way over by the boards, leaving the middle wide open), a badly lost faceoff by Horcoff to Hanzal who whacked a perfect one-touch backhand pass into the middle, and a lost man by Penner who allowed Vrbata to jump around him and just like that, poof, he was gone on a partial breakaway. Vrbata snapped one and instead of making the problem go away with a half-decent save, JDD seived it through the 5-hole, adding the exclamation point on an horrific, if brief, sequence of pain.

That was just the first of a number of goals against that Pat Quinn correctly labelled "bizarre". The second was not that unusual, indeed all too familiar, a terrible rebound off a bad-angle shot that JDD kicked right into the slot where Shane Doan was lurking. Oilers started to come on at that point and scored a couple of quick ones including a powerplay goal by Gilbert Brule (after Zack Stortini goaded Ilya Bryzgalov into a silly slashing penalty) followed by a beauty by Patrick O'Sullivan which briefly knotted the count at 2. Not for long, as another own-zone acid trip soon ensued on a routine shoot-in to the Oilers zone, in which Strudwick was unable to keep up with Hanzal, Grebeshkov failed to come across, and Deslauriers wound up neither coming out to field the shoot-in or closing the 5-hole in time to stop Hanzal's bad-angle shot from close range, his third bad goal of the game and sixth of the past two games. Next up was a fire drill in our end where Steve Staios lost his stick, got one from Robert Nilsson who in turn got one from Shawn Horcoff (don't ask me why a forward should give his stick to another forward, but I'm sure that's what I saw). Well Staios got clean possession but couldn't clear the zone because he had a backwards curve, so the puck went over to Smid who held it while the Oilers made a partial change (Horc and Steady Steve made it to the bench), then passed it up to Nilsson (who was also using an unfamiliar stick, mind) who was stripped of the puck by Vrbata and just like that it's 2-on-1 with just Smid back, and a perfect pass and shot later it's 4-2 and that 2-goal comeback is ancient history.

I wouldn't have bet a nickel on a second 2-goal comeback but that's just what unfolded in the third. After an apparent Phoenix powerplay goal was disallowed for obscure reasons, Oilers countered with a nice snipe by Denis Grebeshkov off of a fine steal and feed by Sam Gagner, and within a minute had tied things up at 4-4 when Dustin Penner potted the leftovers after a ridiculously bad rebound popped up and over Bryzgalov. Gagner followed up his assist by playing his most inspired hockey in weeks if not months. Sam was so fired up they had to call two TV timeouts in 74 seconds to slow him down a tad. ($#!+ I hate those things even more when I'm actually in attendance, it's like they open a chimney in the building and let all the tension and pressure out while the local shills pop up larger and louder than life on the big screen to push product or promote another inane contest or do whatever to draw attention away from the darn game.)

Pondering the visitors' unlikely 25-14-3 record, my buddy and I amused ourselves throughout the evening by promulgating various conspiracy theories about how the Phoenix NHL Coyotes might get the occasional break from the Phoenix NHL officials, and imagined all sorts of things about how boarding or hooking seemed to have different interpretations depending on the colour of the jersey committing the alleged infraction. Of course it was immediately clear the Phoenix NHL Coyotes had an 8-on-6 powerplay throughout, which became a 10-on-6 when a shoot-in meant to trigger Oilers' last line change in regulation hit the linesman, resulting in a quick breakout and more chaos around the bench.  

Finally the buzzer went to assure the Oilers a point, some welcome relief after a stretch of 9 Regulation losses in the last 10 games. After Bryzgalov provided the gloved answer to an early probe by Penner, the game turned on an innocuous tripping penalty to Fernando Pisani of all people, an accident that was deemed a game-deciding penalty by the Phoenix NHL officials running the show. 3v4 is very tough to kill off for two long minutes, especially if your PK sucks in the first place. Complicating matters was yet another lost stick, this time Smid's, which reduced the Oilers to two able-bodied defenders and one cripple as the Coyotes cycled the puck to perfectly set up the deciding blast off the stick of Shane Doan. No chance for JDD this time, that rocket either was going to hit him or it was going in, and it didn't hit him. 

Adding insult to injury was that Doan scored the winner. He's a favourite of mine, but every time I see him in the flesh I flash back to that fateful 1995 day when the Entry Draft was held here in Edmonton. The Coliseum crowd chanted "Doan, Doan, Doan" as Glen Sather and Barry Fraser made their way to the microphone to announce the 6th overall pick, only to have the chant end in confused silence and audible gasps of "who?" when the Oilers instead chose Steve Kelly. Winnipeg Jets chose Doan 3 picks later and the rest is history. Was perhaps the first if not the last time that 10,000 GMs in the stands demonstrated a better grasp of affairs than did Oilers management. Not that we could have used Shane Doan on our team all these years or anything.  

A few positives from tonight's affair. I had another Patrick O'Sullivan sighting, the third one in the last week. Even before his dazzling breakaway goal, POS had caught my eye with some real fine skating which, when he's going, borders on elite. It seems that his anticipation skills are in his feet, cuz they were moving too. Of course the usual bad luck followed him around, like the time he tried to make a quick head man pass from his own zone only to have his stick explode in his hands, forcing him to (smartly) kick the puck to safety beyond the blueline while swearing at the missed opportunity. But for the first time since he's been here, I'm getting the sense that this kid's game may be coming around, that he's got his head and his hands and his feet all engaged at the same time. We'll see if/how long it lasts; AFAIC he can play the way he did tonight for as long as he wants to stay. 

The Oilers had a strong night on the dot against a very good faceoff team, winning 38/66 = 58% led by Ryan Potulny's 10/12 and Zack Stortini's 3/3. It was fun to watch Zorg take Cogliano's spot on the dot, win the draw, then slide over to the wing.  Potulny meanwhile had some very fine moments, and more than a few others where he looked like an AHLer. Still a work in progress, that one, though there are positive signs.

Finally, a few stats of interest:

Horcoff: 0-1-1, 3 shots, 14/27 = 52%, Corsi +10
Potulny: 20:12 TOI (most among forwards), 0-1-1, 5 shots, 1 hit, 1 block, 1 takeaway, 4 giveaways
Moreau: 0 shots, 4 giveaways
O'Sullivan: 1-1-2, 5 shots*
Penner: 1-0-1, 7 shots, Corsi +10
Deslauriers: 24/30, .800, OTL
Gagner: 0-1-1, 7 shots
   

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Next up: Columbus at Edmonton, Thursday January 7, 19:00

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