Well that was fun.
I know I ranted this morning about how preseason games are overpriced and meaningless, especially when your opposition is from the Florida Keys League, and how that can make your team look better than they really are. All true. But dammit, if you can't be optimistic in September, when the heck can you be?
Hard not to be optimistic after a night at Rexall which resulted in the following three stars:
Legitimate selections, as Paajarvi and Hall were the two most exciting players on the ice. The Swede with the Finnish name delivered a hat trick in his first "NHL" game along with an assist on a night the dice kept coming up seven. Hall meanwhile scored once in his pro debut and created several exciting moments that could have resulted in goals but didn't. In their first appearance in Edmonton, both players lived up to the hype - no mean feat in itself - and gave Oiler fans cause to celebrate tonight, and to hope for the future.
Not surprisingly the game was a sloppy, penalty-filled affair. From the game's first whistle the Oilers beat a steady path to the sin bin, ultimately finding themselves shorthanded on 10 occasions, but with Tampa Bay's powerplay on vacation it turned out to be a good chance to practice the PK. Tom Renney used every player except his fourth line of MacIntyre - Pitlick - Omark on the penalty kill. Up front Penner, Fraser and Cogliano were the principal PKers, but guys like Gagner and Hemsky got substantial work shorthanded, and looked good doing it, too. Meanwhile, all 6 defencemen cycled through the PK unit; in fact all 6 guys played within a minute or so of 20 minutes in a very balanced division of labour.
Those defenders played a key role in in an unusual 3+1 formation that Renney deployed in the neutral zone. I'm not a systems guy usually but this one was hard to miss: as Tampa's PP got control in its end, the two Oiler forwards would split out to either boards, one defenceman would rotate up and into the middle and the second D would line up right behind him in the "I" formation. Then the four of them would gradually retreat as the Lightning entered the neutral zone. The idea was to make the other guys have to work a bit to get the puck to centre. Once it got into Oilers zone the players would reconfigure into a more traditional box, but that neutral zone wrinkle was a new one to my eye.
Tampa scored first and last in this one, but in between times the Oilers poured in five consecutive goals, winning every period en route to a 5-2 triumph. Just the first goal for each team was at even strength, as the Oilers decisively won the battle of special teams, going 3 for 7 on the PP and an impressive +1/-1 out of 10 while shorthanded.
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#4 Taylor Hall: Fast and dynamic, Hall demonstrated a number of power moves to get the puck inside and into the scoring area. His instincts to this end are remarkably aggressive. His 3 shots were more than any other Oiler than Paajarvi and all were dangerous. He also hit the post in the first on a well-executed 2-on-2 rush with Gagner. His goal was something of a gift from Tampa goalie Dan Ellis, but Hall showed plenty of moxie in taking Ellis's weak clearing pass down with his glove and making a strong move to his backhand to beat both Ellis and the defenceman, before calmly sliding the puck into the vacated cage.
#5 Ladislav Smid: Was in a snarly mood all night. 6 PiM, as Ladi took former teammate Marc Pouliot to the box with him 16 seconds in, later getting another coincidental with Tampa irritant Steve Downie, and going off alone for a slightly nasty boarding infraction. Really stepped it up from the JMC when the "other guys" were friends, not foes. Did lose a couple of battles, though, one of which resulted in Carter Ashton's late powerplay goal. Carried the puck effectively at times and looked pretty good on the point in 5 minutes of powerplay duty.
#13 Andrew Cogliano: Centred the PCP Line between Paajarvi and Penner. I saw him real good for the second time in a row. Was flying with actual purpose and fully engaged in the game. Scored a pretty powerplay goal, shaking free down low to tip in Foster's hard pass to break the 1-1 tie late in the first, but only after doing some excellent work darting around the zone to maintain possession and pressure. Also had a big night on the PK (6:26 SH TOI).
#16 Colin Fraser: Unspectacular but solid, especially on the PK where he played half of his 14½ minutes.
#23 Linus Omark: His line with Pitlick and MacIntyre were the only Oilers to play less than 10 minutes on the night. They were scored on within 10 seconds of their first shift allowing a wide open 4-on-2 against right off an offensive zone draw as all three guys went one way, the puck the other. Oops. The trio created little, and ran into penalty problems. Omark didn't have the skating legs he showed in the JMC, although he did make one nice move and shot. He'll need a game with better linemates to showcase his strengths.
#26 Kurtis Foster: Impressed with his calm demeanour in his Oiler debut. Earned a primary assist on Cogliano's go-ahead goal with a beauty shot-pass that Cogs tipped home from the edge of the crease. A lot of big bombers would have been bombing away there, but Foster took Paajarvi's pass in the high slot, quickly visualized the right play, and just as promptly executed it. Handled himself OK in defensive situations to my eye, other than one fire drill at the offensive blueline on a delayed offside which resulted in a breakaway against.
#27 Dustin Penner: Looked a lot more involved tonight after floating through the JMC. Penner's a very physical player in a passive-aggressive sort of way, he doesn't kill people with crunching checks but good luck getting him off the puck when he wants it. Made a real nice play to set up Paajarvi's game-winning goal, driving wide and gaining body position before sending a sharp diagonal pass through the slot for the one-timer. Led all Oiler forwards in SH TOI with a whopping 7:23.
#33 Steve MacIntyre: 5:28 in ice time, 6:00 in penalties. Was on the ice for one Tampa goal and in the box for the other. All three of his penalties occurred after the whistle, and none were coincidental. Could hardly have had a worse night in his bid for a roster spot.
#37 Richard Petiot: A very pleasant surprise to my eye. Petiot showed an awful lot of game, including what seemed to be plus skating, quite unexpected for a 28-year-old career AHLer. Had the game's best hit, an open-ice ownage of Niklas Persson, and further surprised with his competence in the offensive zone. Petiot's career stats are intriguing: just 33 points total in his four year college career (141 GP), only 40 points in his first four professional seasons combined (175 GP, 13 of them in the NHL), then 37 points last year alone in a breakthrough season in Rockford (80 GP). Oilers may have found themselves a live one here.
#38 Jeff Deslauriers: 1 GA on 8 shots sums up a night in which he was OK but not great. Could have battled harder on Ashton's goal IMO.
#40 Devan Dubnyk: A strong night's work. Was beaten shortside by Randy Jones on that early 4-on-2, but slammed the door after that. Stopped 19 shots, his best stop being a robbery of Ryan Malone off a sharp goal mouth feed from Downie. Battled through traffic effectively.
#45 Shawn Belle: This guy is a load, 240 pounds and excellent straight-ahead speed. Not the most agile of skaters though, which limits his potential as a hitter. Made a nice breakout pass to Paajarvi which earned him an assist.
#48 Alex Plante: Led all defenders with 21:23, and they were solid minutes. Ended the night with two assists, albeit for relatively trivial plays far from Tampa's goal. Pass the puck to Paajarvi was the play tonight.
#67 Gilbert Brule: As in the JMC, was given third line duties, on a line with Fraser and Reddox. Brule's game has sufficient breadth to be effective in such a role. Tonight he was aggressive on both the body and the puck, making positive things happen on a number of occasions.
#68 Tyler Pitlick: Looks like a player, but not ready yet. I suspect he'll be among the next round of cuts.
#77 Tom Gilbert: Meh night. Did what he does, unspectacular but effective for the most part, although he found himself in a couple of tough situations. He's not one of the guys trying to make the team, that's for sure.
#83 Ales Hemsky: His stats line - 0-0-0, 0 PiM, 0 shots, even - suggests he was, uh, coasting. He actually played pretty alright, with a couple of absolute beauty feeds including one head-man pass that found Hall on the fly and sent the kid in on a partial break in the third. Also threw a dandy open-ice hit late in the second, right out of the blue. I didn't mind his work on the PK either, and would dearly love to see him add this element to his game.
#85 Liam Reddox: The little bugger seems faster than I remember. Tonight he forming a lightning quick PK duo with Cogliano at times. Hard not to like his hustle, epitomized by a diving pokecheck which cleared the zone and ended some developing powerplay pressure.
#89 Sam Gagner: Centred the HGH Line with Hall and Hemsky, and led all forwards with 20:04. Like Hemsky, his stats line was nothing but zeroes, but he played OK and had his moments on both sides of the puck. The two-on-two rush with Hall was beautifully executed.
#91 Magnus Paajarvi: 3 goals, 1 assist in a sterling NHL debut. Scored once in each period, and once each at evens, on the powerplay, and shorthanded. All three of his goals were scored on the rush, starting with a stunning solo effort in which he juked Bolts defenceman Michael Vernace to walk in alone and whiff a change-up which managed to, uh, fake Dan Ellis in the Tampa goal. The alert reader may be thinking, gee Bruce, weren't you the guy who earlier today presciently wondered aloud "How much of a test will it be for Paajarvi to go one on one with Mike Vernace?" To which I can only answer modestly, Why yes, alert reader, yes I was that guy. And the question is every bit as valid now as it was then. The only thing new I can tell you is that Paajarvi passed that test rather easily, and Vernace didn't. :)
Paajarvi's last two goals were scored on outside shots which both had a lot of mustard on them, even if Ellis maybe could have done better on at least one of them. The last one prompted a shower of caps from the stands as Paajarvi beamed beatifically. But the kid also impressed me once again with his playmaking; he has the knack to draw defenders to him and pass the puck into the space they leave behind. This was how he earned his assist, as he got three Tampa penalty-killers to take a step towards him, opening up a little extra room for both Foster and Cogliano to finish the play once Paajarvi slipped the puck back to the point man.
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On the Tampa side of things, Marc Pouliot started the game but got injured partway through and left the game after just 7 minutes ice time. I think we've seen that movie. Malone and Purcell both had strong games, while Downie was effective in his prickly fashion. I made a point of watching "The" Radko Gudas and was quite impressed with what I saw. The rugged blueliner is a work in progress but certainly looks like he's ready for the battle. I won't be one bit surprised if he has his career. Ray Ferraro was also a fan, and mentioned that Radko's dad Leo Gudas was something of a local legend in the Czech league a couple decades ago.
All in all, a happy night and a hopeful one for Oiler fans, although hardly much of a test. But it sure was fun to join the throng in a number of standing ovations as the new kids made their mark. May they make many, many more.