It's tough to be entirely negative after tonight's loss. (Didn't say I'm not going to do it, just that it'll be tough.)
First, even after the Flames burned the Oilers so completely they'll have to identify Liam Reddox from dental records, it is only pre-season, so the game doesn't matter at all. Second, we are still 4-1, so that proves the Oilers are still pretty good. I realize those two points are mutually exclusive; that if the games don't matter our record isn't indicative of anything more than our ability to schedule creampuffs, but as an Oilers' fan, I have grown accustomed to internalizing such inherently absurd statements. Like "Nikolai Khabibulin was our MVP last year" and "Martin Gerber had to go to the minors because last season he only played 30 games in the KHL."
So heck no, I'm not worried! I mean, I'm a little worried this team might be going back to its annoying habit of "lose in hideous, unmemorable fashion whenever Ben writes the post-game thread, but at least do something interesting when Bruce is writing it", but that's only trouble for the professional in me who insists, "Ben, you shouldn't try to drag on your post-game threads with endless ironic commentary on how you endlessly drag on your post-game threads." Luckily the professional in me is dead. I killed him with a combination of drink and sarcasm.
Besides, this game wasn't entirely uninteresting. Steve MacIntyre scored a goal and was only the second-most effective scoring goon in the NHL today; that's pretty cool. There were three fights, which is cool on a certain level. And I got to enjoy the experience of Nikolai Khabibulin shambling around the crease letting more rubber through him than a joke I can't even finish it's so crude. Not as crude as Nikolai's goaltending, of course, which probably ought to earn the 2010-11 Oilers radio broadcasts one of those "Parental Advisory" stickers. Really, between that and the face-mashing, I'm not sure how parents can let their children watch the Oilers. It's brutal and violent and graphic and at the end the good guys usually lose - what kind of thing is that to show a child?
(Ha, I knew I could find a way to be negative! Don't mess with an expert, son.)
I do have a confession to make before we begin looking at the game: I didn't actually look at the game. Since we sort out who does the post-game threads in advance, I knew I'd be writing this one since this morning, and on an unrelated note, I decided to go to the liquor store just before the puck dropped. But a series of minor adventures and a SkyTrain malfunction meant that I missed so much as a second of video action, reduced to listening to the Oilers on my iPhone and pumping my fist on the train at our rare triumphs like some unfortunate combination of a hipster doofus and an oblivious jock. This means, on the one hand, that I don't actually know what happened in the game, but on the other hand, that I get to tell you about the new guy calling Oilers' games this season.
This was the first time I'd had the pleasure of listening to Not Rod Phillips, or as I understand his birth certificate reads, "Jack Michaels". A strange oversight from his parents, considering his destiny to be Not Rod Phillips, but let's set that aside for now. Not Rod was very, very enthusiastic and very, very energetic. Oh, I missed the GARGANTUAN SAVES!!!!! by Khabibulin, but if we had to not have Rod, I think I could live with Not Rod. Certainly, he managed to combine a very high tempo with seeming to know what every player's name was, which I wasn't aware is something a radio play-by-play announcer is allowed to do.
Listening to Not Rod call the fight between Ivanans and MacIntyre was... well, it was something else. Did anyone else catch it on the radio? Preposterous and overdramatic, the two apparently trading titanic earth-shattering haymakers for about five minutes. Not Rod's voice rising, rising, seemingly always at a crescendo and never quite there, like the entire Second World War was being boiled down to ninety seconds between two tall, talentless guys playing a preseason game. From the number of punches that were apparently thrown, you could probably run some pretty accurate CompuBox numbers. Dan Tencer was nice enough to provide an audio snippet of the call on Twitter; this is really something you should experience for yourself. Actually, I think it's not the first time I've heard Not Rod call a fight. Those adjectives, that enthusiasm. I swear I've heard him somewhere before.
I mock Not Rod, but in spite of his critical sin of not being Rod ,he's pretty good. I generally knew where the puck was, for example, which is a nice change of pace from what I'm used to. When Liam Reddox fought Stefan Meyer in a battle of what I'll charitably call the welterweights (I genuinely do not think the 5'11" Reddox has ever fought professionally before, although the 6'2" Meyer is a bit of a ruffian), he sounded like... well, he sounded like I'd sound if I was calling a fight between Liam Reddox and Stefan Meyer. The Jim Vandermeer - Tim Jackman altercation just sounded confused, although Bob Stauffer seemed worried that if the linesman hadn't stepped in Vandermeer would have beat Jackman's head into the ice until we had a new faceoff dot.
But here's what I don't get. MacIntyre, apparently, roughed Ivanans up pretty good and Vandermeer knocked down Jackman. Reddox didn't fight too gracefully but being Liam Reddox nobody expected much. Kurtis Foster had a BIG HIT and the Oilers, all around, were generally kicking some Flames butt. And yet we lost 5-1. Some mistake, surely? I mean, the whole premise behind signing all these gormless ruffians was that they would punch people in the face and we would somehow magically score more goals as a result. I realize that the most gormless and ruffian-y one of them all scored our only goal, but from what I understand even that was a nice tip job on a good shot. He didn't spear anybody in the junk on the entire play and yet the puck went in.
Conn Smythe, who you know is smart because they named a trophy after him, once said "if you can't beat them in the alley, you can't beat them on the ice." Well, we beat them in the alley all right, and yet somehow they're the ones who ended up with our wallet. Listening to the game late in the third period, Bob Stauffer reminisced fondly of last pre-season when Jean-Francois Jacques eliminated Robyn Regehr with an open-ice hit and added that the Oilers could have used some of that tonight. Now, that's funny, because what I remember about last year's Oilers was that they were unbelievably terrible, that Jean-Francois Jacques was the worst player in franchise history, and that in spite of some fifty-four minutes in penalties we were getting our asses handed to us pretty comprehensively. Not only that, but guys like Ales Hemsky, Taylor Hall, and Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson were still getting hit, almost as if hockey players who put on a hundred pounds of armour and get hit in the nuts by slap shots for a living aren't deterred from doing their job by the prospect of the other team's goon punching their team's goon a few times.
I'm beginning to formulate a theory that actual hockey-playing ability is by far the most important part of playing hockey. Grab the test tubes, find some graph paper, and we'll do down to Gabe's place to work on this.
If this theory that you have to play hockey to play hockey is accurate, the Oilers might be in some trouble. I don't want to say their goaltender played like he was drunk... actually, I do and he did. If I ran the Reverse Three Stars off of radio broadcasts, Nikolai Khabibulin would be the twentieth star with a bullet (a Coors Light silver bullet). The problem with the radio, of course, is that I don't know if Khabibulin let in five goals on thirty-one shots because T.J. Brodie and Jon Rheault were picking corners like Brett Hull in his prime, or if it's because our starting goaltender is an overpaid, below-average criminal with a chronically bad back, a drinking problem, and a long-term contract. So I don't want to leap to any conclusions and speculate on whether Khabibulin was so mind-bendingly terrible because he was drunk again or because he was sober for once. Would hate to do that. (Twentieth star. Just mark it down unofficially.)
Not that I can lay all the weight on Khabibulin's back, which would be a bad idea in any case. The skaters, and the defensemen in particular, sounded lost. That big hit I mentioned from Kurtis Foster put Foster so heinously out of position the Flames immediately got a goal. Bob Stauffer blamed Sam Gagner for not coming back to scoop up the puck, because of course on a defensive rush the centre's main job is to make sure his defenders don't suddenly think they're Rowdy Roddy Piper. Even apart from that, there were a lot of "oh, and here come the Flames on a 4-on-2!" calls from Not-Rod, which doesn't indicate the Oilers were holding the zone too well or backchecking too hard.
Apparently, Paajarvi and Hemsky aren't connecting too well, either. Hemsky muffed a breakaway but otherwise looked solid aside from his complete inability to communicate on-ice with his left winger. This actually seems fairly common to me: when one winger is a stickhandler and the other winger is a speed demon, putting them together all sounds very nice until the speedster is thundering in offside while the stickhandler dicks around near the blue line and they're both trying to do something, offensively, that is completely different from what the other is doing. Paajarvi and Penner seem like a much more natural combination to me, since Penner would just knock shit over and make everybody get the hell out of his way, hopefully opening up space for Paajarvi to turn on the jets. They're both left wingers but since Paajarvi seems to view the entire ice as his canvas I'm not sure putting him on the right side would make any difference. Let Hemsky and Hall keep each other amused with their stickhandling shenanigans and pot thirty goals each instead.
In spite of the fact that his two main moments in the spotlight were negative, Liam Reddox seemed to have a pretty good, Liam Reddox-y game. The danger for Reddox is that this is the first time he's really had a chance to make the Oilers out of training camp and he might get too excited: I think the Meyer fight was a bit of that. But ultimately, Reddox is a player at his best when he keeps it simple, makes life difficult for attacking players, and generally looks after his own end. Reddox seemed to realize that, even if he got Hemsky-itis on his breakaway and failed to get a shot off.
There's some controversy on whether Theo Peckham, Richard Petiot, or Shawn Belle should make this team out of training camp. After listening to Peckham last night and Petiot previously, I'm not sure it makes a difference since they're all going to go diving for Patrick O'Sullivan's +/- record if they get any ice time anyway. I miss Alex Plante so much it's like a lump of coal in my chest.
The Oilers played about as well as you'd expect from a team that lost 5-1 and got outshot like the dickens. That is to say "not very well at all", but there were some encouraging moments. Eberle played quietly but nicely, coming out -2 in a way that I don't think was his fault (again, radio). Zack Stortini played less than eight minutes, which seems hard to do when you're an established NHL outscorer in a lineup where guys are getting tossed left and right, but what opportunities he had to cause some chaos and play some hockey he took. Tom Gilbert skated everywhere, bombed a couple shots, constantly tried to activate in the play, generated absolutely no real chances and was on the ice for a goal against, so he's clearly in mid-season form. And Ladislav Smid, while by far my favourite own-zone talent on this team, should really go to one of those courses Gary Bettman takes and learn what the puck is.
That's it. It was ugly but it was one game. We'll get them Sunday. (Well, we probably won't get them Sunday but it's nice to have something to look forward to.)