Jeremie Blain made a difference for the Oilers tonight. Not in a good way. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
For once, after an Oilers loss, I'm not feeling particularly distraught. Close game, a 4-3 loss to the scrappy San Jose Sharks. Good effort. A few obvious weaknesses but nothing that will kill this team long term. Nice. Nice.
The fact that it was just the prospects didn't have much to do with it, actually. After all, what we were watching was the future of a team saddled with a pretty crappy present. Anything less than the 2-1 record we've left the Penticton prospect tournament might have been cause for despair, but 2-1 itself isn't bad. Pretty sound opposition, too - the San Jose Sharks might not have a great prospect stable, but they have a few good ones and padded the roster with ringers from their AHL and ECHL teams.
In the short term, a few notable exceptions aside (and I'll be getting to them!), Edmonton didn't play too badly. We looked... well, we looked like a bunch of undersized but talented kids who had never played together before and weren't quite sure what to expect of each other. The game itself was a dud, featuring a bunch of mediocre fights as well as decisive victories by Ryan Martindale and Cameron Abney that did nothing to overshadow the brutal cheapshot absorbed by Alex Plante that nobody will remember because this isn't just preseason, it's pre-preseason. But the Oilers did themselves credit in a losing cause.
This is a season where we're going to witness a lot of losing causes. It's probably a good idea to start looking for the bright sides in them or we'll spend the rest of the winter and spring sobbing our guts out eighty-two times.
The attention, as always, will be on the line of Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson, Taylor Hall, and Jordan Eberle. Three guys expected to make the NHL roster this season and have a big impact on the Oilers' fortunes one way or another for a lot of years. They were clearly the best line on the ice for either team but, then, you'd hope so: the Oilers had gone thoroughly front-heavy and anything less than positional dominance would have been poor reward.
They had a little tough sledding early, where the strategy seemed to be "Magnus skates like the wind, Taylor and Jordan hope he gets the puck to them somehow." Hall actually made a pretty good account of himself at centre: he won some faceoffs and was able to get some room to work down the middle (not exactly against the finest opposition but it's something). Paajarvi was very much the straw that stirred the drink, with the overmatched Sharks prospects having absolutely no answer for his raw athleticism and his skill on the puck, while not as good as we've sometimes seen, more than good enough to make plays to Hall or Eberle. Jordan was the closest thing to a weakness on the line and he suffered only by comparison. He might, however, have been better off running with Hartikainen and Pitlick or something similar so he could use his skills without being overshadowed by Paajarvi and Hall's Flying Circus.
The depth forwards did fairly well, but nothing to right home about. Teemu Hartikainen was strong but far from dominant and had more trouble outmuscling the bigger Sharks than he did the Flames last night. Ryan Martindale was the next-best of the rest, with a cracker of a fight and some pretty efficient plays at centre that didn't generate much offense but also largely held San Jose at bay. His assist on the goal from James Livingston was pretty smart but hardly highlight of the night material: still, credit to young Martindale for making the right read.
Unfortunately, the defense got off on the wrong foot all together. Brandon Mashinter of San Jose decided he wanted to fight Alex Plante of the Oilers. Plante was by no means as enthusiastic but he dropped the gloves duly, whereupon Mashinter grabbed Plante by the head, wrestled off his helmet, lifted Plante up and tried to drive him head-first onto the ice. It was a spectacularly brutal play that looked awfully premeditated. Plante and Mashinter didn't even throw punches: it was remove the helmet and then try to break Alex's spine. Luckily, Plante got his arm up to protect himself and, in spite of a nasty knock, left the ice under his own steam. He didn't return to the game but that seemed precautionary more than anything.
This being the pre-preseason and Plante not having needed an ambulance, Mashinter got only the usual five minutes for fighting and not a couple years for attempted murder. Jordan Bendfeld fought Mashinter later in a scrap that was as useless and unproductive as everything Jordan Bendfeld does, but the damage was done. The Oilers, already short Jeff Petry, were now minus probably their best defenseman early in the game.
The defense was a real low-light for Edmonton all night and that might have been why. Bendfeld was as thick as a plank but at least didn't make any of the heinous mistakes we saw against Calgary. Martin Marincin took a dopey penalty that led to a Sharks goal and was average at best other than that, aside from a few nice signs on the powerplay. Dominik Schlumpf might have been Edmonton's best defenseman on the night in that he didn't screw up. Professional veteran Johan Motin and recent draft pick Jeremie Blain, meanwhile, got worked like speedbags: Motin combined one of the worst powerplay efforts from a defenseman in recent memory with giveaways and a total lack of positioning at even strength which brought to mind an old Igor Ulanov. Blain got hustled to hell and gone by the Sharks attack, was directly culpable for one San Jose goal and had a helping hand in another, and was generally a massive load all night.
In goal, Bryan Pitton was... he was bad. His positioning was ferociously askew and his rebound control was as erratic as my rebound control after a bad breakup. He really should have had each of the first three goals one way or another, either by corralling the first shot or just doing something effective to prevent a second. Later in the second period, with the Sharks no longer applying pressure and no traffic to contend with, he began to turn it around and made some decent reflex saves. But too little, too late.
The game itself was a grind filled with awful flings of fisticuffs. I like a fight as much as anyone but I like a fight with a little meat behind it. Two guys squaring up because they want to fire up the team or maybe avenge a previous wrong. These were fights between people looking to impress, trying to get fans to remember their names so maybe they'll get a longer look at training camp even if they have hands and heads of cement. The Sharks were guilty of taking most of the cementhead liberties but the Oilers played along with them, and as a result it was stop-and-go non-action where you wondered if any players would get out of this game seriously hurt. We got lucky there. But it was pretty dull viewing.
Luckily, we can now move on to the real preseason and yet more meaningless fights by talentless players. Hooray.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars, Not Counting the Poor Fans in Penticton who Paid to Watch That Crap:
18th Star: D Johan Motin. As one of the veteran Oilers in this lineup, Motin ought to have shown more than he did. Particularly with Plante knocked out so early; this would have been a great chance for the lanky Swede to step up, assert himself, state in confident terms whose house this is and make it clear that he planned on cleaning it up. What he did instead was try to limply clear the puck right to San Jose sticks too often, show not even an iota of physical play in a game where other players were running around like hooligans, and take on Sharks forwards with all the aggression and intensity of a grandmother lulled to sleep by the Matlock marathon.
Motin struggled in the NHL last year, of course, and wasn't so hot in the AHL either. But these are rookies and scrubs. They're his people! He ought to have done better than he did, and I'm starting to wonder how many real strides the once-promising Motin made last season.
19th Star: G Bryan Pitton. You can't allow three duds like that and not get into the Reverse Three Stars. All three of the goals Pitton conceded had some odour on them and even after he stopped getting scored on it was more because he no longer had any traffic or real physical pressure to deal with. He was mostly able to make the first save, unscreened, from distance, but then again any goaltender who's getting paid to play hockey should be able to do that. Of course, Bryan Pitton's terrible-ness isn't news, but this is the first time it's been relevant for Reverse Three Stars purposes.
20th Star: D Jeremie Blain. Come back with me on a voyage into the second period. Martindale has just set up Livingston and it's a 3-2 Sharks lead. San Jose is coming on strong but the Oilers are mostly keeping them to the outside and the puck gets to 18-year-old Michael Sgarbossa around the right hash marks. Sgarbossa is a little fellow, 5'11", but he had some pretty good touch in the OHL last year and has already embarrassed Bryan Pitton with two pretty ugly goals tonight. But here's Sgarbossa, up against another youngster in Jeremie Blain. Sgarbossa decides to take Blain on and skates at him. Blain drops down, spreads his stick out as if trying to cut off a pass, and Sgarbossa... pretty much goes right by. And scores the eventual winner, easy as you please.
It would be hard for Blain to get schooled much worse than he did on that play. There was barely any physical engagement. He barely forced Sgarbossa to alter course, never mind stickhandle around him. Blain just got torched and poor Pitton had to cope with his defense utterly abandoning him on top of all his other problems. I don't watch much QMJHL hockey but I have to say I was worried when I saw that Jeremie Blain went -22 last year in Acadie-Bathurst. Now I think I have a better understanding why.