I do like a little drop of hope.
The Edmonton Oilers made sure to keep us teasingly interested in the game while never taking the risk of actually winning it. It was the perfect game for a team in the tank: look good, play hard, take on a superior team and stay competitive. Moral victories abounded. Various players who usually look poor looked decent, a few who usually look decent looked poor.
The Oilers fell behind immediately and fought back to tie the game. It was terrific! Then, as if to disprove the entire concept of scoring effects, they kept the San Jose Sharks in enough trouble that the Sharks actually took their timeout in the first period, trying to catch their breath and come to terms with the sheer force of the Edmonton frickin' Oilers. The San Jose Sharks! The Edmonton Oilers! Then the Sharks power play pounded one past the Oilers penalty kill, in one of the upsets of the century. The Oilers fell straight down the rabbit hole, going behind 4-1... before fighting back to within a goal and getting a couple scoring chances that completely failed to tie the game. We went out on a high and had some fun in the middle there, and we still didn't hurt our run at Dive for Five II: Electric Boogaloo.
We couldn't even blame the excitement on a poor opponent. All credit to the San Jose Sharks, who had every excuse to roll over in this one. The Canucks had caved in the Sharks' skull the night before, and San Jose was missing approximately their entire team due to injury. They lost two more defensemen early in this very game, and stud Dan Boyle spent most of the game playing half of the team's shifts after taking a nasty stinger of a shot off his ankle. In theory, the well-rested Oilers should have been able to push San Jose around, but the Sharks played them hard and earned their two points. San Jose's best players were their best players, they got some gritty play from their battered defense, and they managed to squeeze out victory on the road in their third game in four nights.
There. I'm done giving credit for a while. Because, ultimately, the Oilers did lose, and I have to blame somebody.
Of course the Oilers didn't look bad. Given the talent differential between them and San Jose, not even I can criticize the Oilers too loudly. The shots were dead even at 25 each, and apart from Colin Fraser most of the Oilers had a decent game on the faceoff circle. The penalty kill may have allowed a goal to Dany Heatley but, hell, lots of penalty kills have done that and it wasn't a terrible goal. So many of our usual weaknesses weren't terribly weak, and that's how our team that is now ten games below .500 hung in with one of the favoured teams in the Western Conference.
They could have looked so much better, though. In addition to the Sharks' existing slate of injuries, Edmonton caught couple lucky breaks early. Defenseman Niclas Wallin left the game with a serious ankle injury after his second shift, and Kent Huskins didn't survive the first period. The San Jose Sharks were playing their third game in four nights, and the previous night they had been getting the tar kicked out of them in Vancouver. Athletically, San Jose was in a bad way. At the end of the first period the game was tied and Edmonton had the momentum. With the Sharks short on players, short on gas, and the game close, the Oilers would seem to have been in a good position. And if you were me, you'd be telling the Oilers to exploit their advantage! Skate hard and force the Sharks to do the same. Dump the puck, get their defensemen chasing it, have your guys pound them on the forecheck, and wear them the hell out. Douglas Murray played 26:39, and Justin Braun of all people played 22:48. That blue line was being brutally over-extended, and the Oilers could have torn their throats out like Patrick Swayze.
Instead, the Oilers played so far back in the second period Bruce needed one of his telescopes to find them. Shots in the second ran 14-3 San Jose. 14-3! How does that even happen in these circumstances? Heatley's early power play goal seemed to be an actual Big Goal: it sucked the wind right out of the Oilers' sails and the rest of it was skating in circles. Heatley got an ugly, ugly second goal that was positively Khabibulin-esque in its awfulness, and the Oilers just took it. There was no life, no nothing. Far from getting the Sharks blue line to run around and waring them out, they let San Jose play whatever game they wanted. Justin Braun had two assists in the first two periods. Are you kidding me? The Oilers should have been feeding that kid his own Sherwood and instead he was picking us apart like Ray Bourque. Not long into the second, Joe Pavelski scored another goal and it was 4-1 Sharks.
Now, here was the part of the game where the Oilers at once enlivened and infuriated me. The game was more-or-less over, the Sharks had been dominant for the last half-hour, and it was all a bloody mess. Maybe the Oilers through they had nothing to lose by playing hard again, or maybe the Sharks sat back. But whatever caused it, the Oilers went back to their successful first period strategy: bang, crash, keep the puck moving, quick transitions, get those San Jose defensemen sucking wind. And it worked! The Oilers got a beautiful rebound goal out of Shawn Horcoff, got a seeing-eye single through traffic from Jim Vandermeer, and oh my god we've got ourselves a hockey game. Even when it was 4-3 and the Sharks were playing as hard as ever the Oilers just an extra stride, getting a few good chances including a glorious one that Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson just missed on. A 4-3 loss was the final, but it was a good 4-3 loss rather than a bad 4-3 loss.
It would have been good, at least, if the Oilers had put in a full sixty minutes. Why did they ease back in the second period, when they had the Sharks right where they wanted them? Why did Edmonton wait until the game was all-but-lost before they went back to the strategy that was so successful in the first? Why couldn't they exploit San Jose's weakness that was so obvious even Kevin Weekes saw it? It might be that Tom Renney is right: this team is getting used to losing. They were uncomfortable when they had the advantage over the Sharks and felt right back at home when they were 4-1 down and had nothing else to lose. Maybe we're building a team of little Patrik Stefans who consider mediocrity the norm and are so miserable they can't think of anything past their next paycheque.
Or maybe this is a team with a combination of young players and awful ones coached by a guy who seems to be pretty much inert and whose penalty killing strategy is closing your eyes and screaming like a girl. That's obviously the simpler explanation. But we better be careful: many more half-efforts like that and the Oilers will go all Atlanta Thrashers on us.
Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars:
18th Star: G Devan Dubnyk. Part of the edict the Reverse Three Stars is that I must be impartial. I cannot wear my heart on my sleeve. I cannot deny players their rightful spot on the Reverse Three Stars just because I like them and think they're the future of the team in goal. Apart from everything else, if I'm too biased Bruce Dowbiggin won't give me my $10,000 back, but it's also important if I'm going to provide an accurate view of the Oilers and not cause weird idiosyncrasies like Fernando Pisani and Mike Comrie both going without a single reverse three star point for the 2009-10 season.
So Devan Dubnyk has to go on this list, even though it hurts. Given that the Oilers, individually, didn't do too badly for the most part this isn't the worst list to be on. The hard truth is that Dubnyk was out of position on Heatley's second goal, would at least sort of like Pavelski's goal back, and didn't make a lot of challenging saves. His rebound control was very strong, and his all-round solidity in goal was a welcome change from what Nikolai Khabibulin has accustomed us to. I don't want to oversell this: Devan Dubnyk was not terrible. But he wasn't as good as the Oilers needed him to be.
19th Star: D Jim Vandermeer. I know, I know, Gentleman Jim scored a goal. It wasn't a bad goal, either. Pretty ugly, but a smart play to uncork an accurate shot through a mob of traffic. Full credit to Vandermeer for getting his first goal as an Oiler. That doesn't mean I can't ding him for the rest of his play, which was at best mediocre. This is a guy who got thoroughly owned by Jamal Mayers 1-on-1 and gave up a breakaway that would have been a great scoring chance if Jamal Mayers hadn't been taking it. Vandermeer was soft in the corners, he was soft on the puck. He was softer than Dustin Penner's belly. He was soft, soft, soft, and it wasn't the first time.
The most concise thing I can say about Vandermeer is this: he is being comprehensively outplayed, both in that game and over the season, by Theo Peckham. Last year, Theo Peckham was so bad he made us dream of Taylor Chorney, and even this year Don Cherry doesn't know what his name is. But Peckham is so many miles ahead of Vandermeer on this season's blue line it's shocking. Of course nobody expected Peckham to look as decent as he has, but nobody expected Vandermeer to be this awful either.
20th Star: C Colin Fraser. A bit of a rough award for Fraser. His line did all right and showed more energy than most of the Oilers did. He finished even on scoring chances, too. But the trouble with scoring chances is that they're a function of who's on the ice, not of the player individually. Tonight, Colin Fraser was a passenger. He was being carried by Jean-Francois Jacques, and that's the worst criticism I can give to a hockey player.
Jacques was at least active. He was hitting and chasing guys. This hardly ever got the Oilers the puck, of course, but in a game where the Oilers needed to wear out the Sharks Jacques did more good than harm. He and Stortini were able to neatly pin the Sharks back in their own zone a couple of times. Fraser floated. Doo dee doo look at all the pretty flowers. He went 0-for-5 on the faceoff circle, doubly galling since he's the guy we were looking to for faceoff expertise. His hits were mostly of the love tap with his hip variety and I don't think he won a single puck battle. He was inert. He was a pylon to be skated around.
This very night, Kyle Brodziak scored two goals and broke Chris Stewart's hand with his face. Brodziak's a guy the Oilers flipped for a late round pick and wound up replacing, far too late, with Colin Fraser. It's asset management like that which has the Oilers chasing yet another lottery pick.