Right now, four straight games is as impressive as four straight Stanley Cups.
Not to be a negative Nancy, but we all know this isn't going to last. It can't. Nikolai Khabibulin has had three first-class games in a row, exceeding his total from the rest of his Oilers career by three. We're still being outchanced, although not nearly as badly as we were early in the season. I fully believe that the kids are improving, that the team is starting to get to know each other, and that the Oilers' results will go along with this. I'm less and less convinced that the Oilers are even going to be in the draft lottery by the end of the season, especially with the all-round decrepitude of the Eastern Conference and the Oilers having the awful Northwest Division to beat up on.
But during the CBC telecast of this game, Mark Lee said that the Oilers were starting to believe they might make the playoffs. Don't talk to me about playoffs! Even with this winning streak, magnificent though it is, the Oilers still have ten wins against sixteen losses. If you accept that the Oilers have been lucky to win six of their last eight games and that pace is unlikely to continue, you should also accept that even if the Oilers have suddenly, remarkably improved, they'd have a lot of winning to do to sneak back into the playoff picture.
That doesn't mean this isn't fun, though. It hurts our latest efforts to Bottomfeed for the Swede, but it's enjoyable as hell. The Oilers are going out, skating against allegedly inferior teams, playing them hard, and coming away with some wins that might not exactly be "deserved" but certainly aren't "lucky". These are the sorts of games a good team plays sometimes: tired after a long road swing and it's showing, but still going out there, putting in a professional effort, taking your chances, and getting a solid overtime win.
Been a while since I put "Oilers" and "good team" in the same paragraph like that and meant it, but there we are. The Oilers haven't suddenly become good. But for the time being they are. Don't worry about tomorrow, 'cause tonight was all we had.
I liked this game. I liked it a great deal.
First off, the Oilers shed many of their usual weaknesses. Goaltending, obviously, was the major one. There's no way to beat around the bush, no way for me to keep up my usual narrative: Nikolai Khabibulin was bloody excellent. The one goal he conceded late to Eric Brewer, a magnificently precise snap shot that I only wish Brewer had shown off more often as an Oiler, was stoppable but only barely; I'm certainly not going to fault any 'tender for letting it through. His rebound control, a traditional weakness, was solid, although he was helped out by his active defense sweeping dangerous pucks away (more on that later). And his reflexes were certainly up to snuff. There were a few iffy moments, a couple slightly shoddy rebounds or typically poor puckhandling, but these were details. That was as complete a game as any Oilers goaltender has played this season, and I'm both flabbergasted and delighted to be able to say that.
Next up was the defense. It wasn't good, not particularly, but this unit never will be. The difference is that the Oilers traditionally have a few guys who keep their heads above water and a few guys who get buried. Tonight, the whole Oilers defense was just good enough. Jim Vandermeer was the closest thing to a weak sister and even he wasn't bad in absolute terms: this was in the better half of the games he's played this season. He even had a clever pinch in the second period that got us a scoring chance; clever because he knew when to take it and clever because he knew Taylor Hall could cover for him when he did. It was anti-Tom Gilbertian in its cleverness, and I can make that smart-assed remark because Gilbert was solid. Theo Peckham, who looked so dreadful last season, played yet another simple, ruthless, efficient game. He knocked bodies out of Khabibulin's way, got the puck out of danger zones, and never once tried to do too much. I have a lot of admiration for a defender who knows his weaknesses and works within them.
Ryan Whitney deserves his own paragraph, because he was just the opposite. He actually had a somewhat torrid time of it during regulation, then he sliced the St. Louis defense in half early in overtime and "oh yeah, that's what he gets paid for". Ladislav Smid pulled a similar long bomb to Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson that Paajarvi took just too long to control: the Blues defense in general did a poor job of controlling the middle of the ice. Time was the Oilers would have let an advantage like that slip past. This time they did no such thing.
The forwards? Well, they're the typical strength of the Oilers, and they lived up to it once again. Jean-Francois Jacques was, again, ineffective but unoffensive. Ryan Jones seemed to be playing in snow boots for most of the game: Derek made the joke that he should start scoring Jones's "falls" just to see how many he racked up. But he also had a nice night defensively, didn't get burned while on his back, and scored a cheeky little goal that isn't going to make any highlight reels but wound up being an important one. Taylor Hall, Shawn Horcoff, Jordan Eberle, and Sam Gagner all more-or-less did what they liked throughout the game, and the rest of the lot were fair enough not to cost the Oilers anything.
The team was mediocre in a lot of areas (I can't say that any of the defensemen apart from Peckham were good, per se) and the Blues were pretty even in terms of scoring chances as a result. But nobody was bad. I can't even name the Reverse Three Stars: nobody really leaped out and made me say "that was a crappy game from a crappy player." I'd be doing things like giving Dustin Penner the twentieth star for being inadequately dominant, and when you're awarding dishonours like that, it means you just saw a pretty good game.
Four in a row. I like that. I absolutely, unreservedly like that. Wow, when was the last time the Oilers made me feel that way?