Slowly, surely, this painful season is grinding to an end. The Oilers wrapped up their home sked on Wednesday night, 6 months and 4 days after it started. Two more road games this weekend and it's done.
Oilers' road record has been horrible in the extreme - just one win in the last 22 outings, and that in the shootout meaning they haven't really beaten anyone in their barn since early December. At home, however, they turned things around nicely with a 9-3-0 run from February 1 to close out the season. So a few good moments for the home faithful without the team ever threatening to get hot enough to endanger that lottery pick.
From a personal perspective, I attended a dozen regular season games in 2009-10, beginning with eight consecutive losses before completely turning around after the Olympics with a run of four straight wins. Tonight I shared two pairs of tickets with family members, so watched the first period from Row 34 in the NE corner before switching to Row 8 just behind the goal line in the other end for periods 2 and 3. It's been a very long time since I've sat so close to the ice surface which made for a great view of the action but a rather scrambled take on the game.
It wasn't too tough to guess that this might be a loosey-goosey game from a Colorado perspective. The Avs had just wrapped up their playoff berth in Vancouver less than 24 hours previously, and one suspects that they may have enjoyed a couple of pops after that game in which they finally reached their season-long objective. For sure we didn't see Colorado's "A" team, as six key players were given the night off, including netminder Craig Anderson, minute munchers Adam Foote and Scott Hannan on the blue, and top forwards Paul Stastny, Milan Hejduk, and T.J. Galiardi.
The shell of a team that remained was good enough to jump to a 3-0 lead before the game was 10 minutes old, with teenagers Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly doing the early damage, banging a pair of rebounds past Jeff Deslauriers. By the time Marek Svatos had scored to make it 3-0 nine minutes in, the Avalanche had all of 5 shots on net: the 2 rebounds, and the 3 goals. Not an auspicious start for JDD.Deslauriers' teammates quickly fought their way back into the game. A powerplay marker by Shawn Horcoff and a breakaway tally from Dustin Penner, both on terrific passes from the lately-hot Tom Gilbert, closed the gap to 3-2 by period's end. The Oilers' powerplay - a perfect 2-for-2 on the night - struck again in the second when Mike Comrie found the mark to tie things up. Then in the third, Andrew Cogliano converted Penner's fine pass to give the Oil their first lead of the night. Rather than roll over as I thought they might, the Avs came on strong after that, bombarding JDD with 20 shots in the third, but only managing to beat him with a real sloppy one which Deslauriers was unable to control in the goal mouth area. Tied again, this one very nearly didn't make it to OT as the squads exchanged glorious scoring opportunities in the dying seconds of regulation.
The overtime period was all Oilers, who outshot the Avs 5-0 and finally produced the winner when Cogliano retrieved the puck behind the Avs net with some industrious play, slipped the puck to Penner who fed Ryan Whitney for the decisive shot from the low slot. It was Oilers' first overtime goal of the season, a much more satisfying way to win than the shootout to this oldtimer.
Whitney led both teams with 27:25 TOI, and again impressed with his intensity and involvement in the game. I was amused by one extended sequence in the third when he was called for a dubious icing call and really chewed out the linesman in the faceoff circle directly in front of me, quite plainly telling the guy to eff off on at least two occasions. The Oil won the draw and JDD was able to freeze the puck to enable the change, but Whitney went out of his way to give the guy another earful on the way to the bench. A TV timeout was called at that point, and sure enough when it was over out came Whitney for the own-zone draw; 90 seconds later he was still hot and running his mouth. I didn't mind that show of competitive fire one bit, especially on a team which has been lacking same in too many corners of the line-up. By all appearances Whitney is taking a leadership role on this squad, a most welcome development.
Meanwhile, Whitney's partner Tom Gilbert continued his late season roll, chipping in a pair of assists for the third game running. After scoring just 12 points in his first 66 games, Gilbert has erupted for 15 in his last 14, appearing far more comfortable alongside Whitney than he had been with an assortment of earlier partners.
Another guy stepping his game up late in the season is Dustin Penner, who copped first star honours with a 1-2-3, +1 night. Penner keeps his emotions on a more even keel, but was involved in this one all over the ice, with 3 takeaways and one thunderous hit in addition to his contributions to the scoresheet. By night's end he had run his stats to 32-31-63, +8, in the process becoming just the 16th 30-30 man in the NHL this season.
As so many Oiler forwards have at times in 2009-10, Andrew Cogliano has found some serious chemistry working with Penner. Cogliano impressed me in both games this week with his tenaciousness on the puck. His speed has been there all along, but what seems to have returned just lately is his nose for the net ... those rushes actually have a destination in mind. On this night he led all players in EV Corsi with an impressive +13.
All of which is far too little, far too late, but if one is looking for hopeful signs for next year, I can't think of a better place to start than within the Oilers' current team. There are prospects in the pipeline with at least one more key one to be identified in June, but the basis of next year's squad is already here and it's good to see some of these fellows playing up to their potential as this sorry season winds down.
Meanwhile, for trivia buffs who enjoy memories of happier times, the time of the game-winning goal (3:50) was the same as the first-ever regular season overtime in this building, while the unusual scoring sequence in this game mirrored that of one of the most famous victories in Oiler history.