Edmonton - Carolina Post-Game: Forty Minutes in Heaven

Well, that ends the longest damned losing streak I can remember.

Some games are prototypical slumpbusters. The goalie makes forty saves and the other guys hit the post a couple times and the fourth line centre sneaks a puck across the goal line and you win 2-1 and say "well, that's a free two points". This wasn't one of those, not least because the only time our goalie will make forty saves is if he's playing one-on-one with Jason Strudwick. We outplayed Carolina pretty much like you'd expect in a 4-2 victory. We passed the puck several consecutive times without hitting a skate once. The Oilers took many shots, and some of them were towards the net. Alex Plante and Steve Staios seemed to have a bet going on who could ring the puck out around the boards most often, which is half all right since, you know, Alex Plante was in his first NHL game and Steve Staios has been doing the same damned thing since the Eisenhower administration.

Oh, there was some luck on our side. Marc Pouliot's game winner was a Doug Gilmour special, cruising behind the back of the net, noticing "hey, Cam Ward is so out of position he's their second-line centre", and tucking the puck off Niklas Wallin's skate into the net. Our first two I missed since I spent the first period taking an alarming amount of time helping a middle-aged woman set up her e-mail, but since they were scored by Jean-Francois Jacques and Gilbert Brule it's safe to assume they had some odour on them.

On balance, though, the Oilers were good value for their 4-2 win. They skated hard, finished checks, and showed more grit than we're accustomed to. The bottom six players were mostly pretty good, the top three by and by large looked like they could carry the mail, the goaltending was merely weak rather than anaemic. They won the game the way real hockey teams win games: with a modest amount of skill.

Amazing the scraps we seize on after a month of starvation.

Long-time readers who didn't just show up to flame Derek about his attendance numbers will recall that I have a post-game gimmick tradition of naming the Oilers' reverse three stars: the three Oilers who put in the most desultory or ineffective performances on the ice. Certainly, even in a 4-2 win over the third-worst team in the NHL, there were no shortage of candidates. But like a traveling salesman pimping his steak knives to distract you from the fact that he just ran over your kid, I want to talk to you about Sam Gagner.

I like Sam Gagner. Liked him from day one, actually, even if I didn't like him quite as much as Jakub Voracek. I'm a big believer that prospect development is as much about the environment as the quality of the prospect; that Patrik Stefan wasn't useless, he was just an Atlanta Thrasher. Coming from nigh-perennial Memorial Cup contenders and World Junior/Super Series stardom to missing the playoffs three straight seasons seems like it would be pretty crummy for young Samwise. Yet he kept plugging. Kept his head down. Did everything right. Got into the doghouse at the beginning of the year and worked his way out of it. He was the very stereotype of the gritty Canadian kid who wasn't getting his points but kept gunning for them, which is a nice trick when you're shorter than me and weigh less than your own hockey bag.

But he's starting to get his points, and he's doing it against surprisingly stiff opposition for a third-year pro, and he's still only twenty. He was the youngest major player selected in the 2007 draft, and he is the second-best player so far from that draft with a bullet. Like, it's not close.

This team has a lot of weaknesses. With injuries piling up, Shawn Horcoff should be fading into a second-line role with penalty killing time and a nice, dignified dotage. Instead, he's having to drag a bunch of idiots behind him night in, night out. Sheldon Souray and Lubomir Visnovsky are injured often enough to be assuming mythical proportions (I once saw a healthy Lubomir Visnovsky decapitate a drifter with a 140mph slap shot!). There are enough square pegs and round holes on this roster to keep a slow child preoccupied for days. It's nice to see Gagner, thrust into the second line role that he wasn't ready for, and making himself ready for it.

It almost gives me hope for the future. If we could trade everybody but Gagner, Penner, Pouliot, and Pisani for draft picks and a goalie who doesn't suffer fits in the middle of the ice, we might just really have something.

The Copper & Blue "Ben Only Watched Two Periods, but These Guys Get All the Points" Reverse Three Stars:

18th Star: D Jason Strudwick. A fairly pedestrian effort from the Joe DiMaggio of the Reverse Three Stars. One for four with a walk, maybe. Strudwick was paired with Alex Plante, an underwhelming first-round pick playing his first ever NHL game after being called up from one of the worst teams in AHL history, and he looked like the panicky one. That takes a special sort of effort, almost as if Strudwick, being the veteran that he is, decided to show Plante just how awful an NHL defenseman could be so he knew what not to do.

Has any player in Oilers history ever - ever - looked as terrified to handle the puck after as many games as Jason Strudwick has under his belt? And the damndest thing is that it's not like he's afraid. On the contrary, in the third period he had an "I'm Bobby Fucking Orr!" pinch into the offensive zone that resulted in a Hurricanes break and Plante backtracking like his house was on fire, and any long-time Oiler watcher will recognize that as a part of Strudwick's offensive repertoire (not that sort of offensive, either).

I don't get how he can be called "steady". Is it because he's old? He's the most erratic defenseman on the Oilers roster, and yes I know Denis Grebeshkov isn't injured yet. He probably pinches more than any of our blueliners who isn't Visnovsky, but he is the least-equipped to back it up. He chases the puck carrier too often and has been skinned from closing down too much more than I can tell you. It's ugly. But he's "steady"? Maybe Pat Quinn actually killed himself in October and the Oilers are being coached by a lookalike.

19th Star: F Patrick O'Sullivan. Another proud tradition, the 19th Star for Sheer Invisibility, awarded to Patrick O'Sullivan. I'll give you a moment while you frantically flip through the game sheet to confirm that O'Sullivan was, in fact, playing. He played 17:52, actually, which seems like a lot considering he didn't achieve anything. He played more than Dustin Penner. He played a lot more than Dustin Penner. You remember Dustin Penner, I'm sure. Big guy, ate all the pies, caused havoc despite playing the entire game in third gear. On something like five occasions, Pat Quinn looked at his huge scoring leader and said "nah, I'll play O'Sullivan", possibly because he wanted the Oilers to get practice playing shorthanded.

I'm an O'Sullivan defender, possibly the last one. He's a complimentary player but, with the right teammates, a damned good one. There's lots of room in the NHL for best supporting actors. He's the William H. Macy of the Oilers, but William H. Macy can't carry a damned movie and Patrick O'Sullivan can't carry his line. Patio lanterns without a patio are just lanterns, after all.

20th Star: G Jeff Deslauriers. Capping off a Reverse Three Stars that's been utterly true to form, we have the 20th Star for the Poor Bastard Who Happened to Be in Goal. Do I really blame Jeff for allowing two softies, puckhandling like he was about to get socked in the testicles by Mike Tyson, and in the dying seconds briefly blue screening and sitting around in his crease as the Hurricanes impotently whacked the puck off his pads and off his defenders' sticks before jumping halfway through the blueline in a nigh-Conklinian attempt to smother the puck, something you think would be a lot easier when you're Edmonton's tallest natural structure?

Yes. Yes I do.

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