When the Oilers last visited the State of Minnesota they came away with a win for the first time since January 2007, ending a 17 game losing streak as guests of the Wild. Despite the loss that day the Wild still found themselves in a tie for first place in the Western Conference with 29 points in 22 games. But since the loss the Wild have seen their fortunes change, gaining only 17 points in the next 16 games. On top of that the Wild had lost the eight games preceding the Oilers visit last night. The Wild needed a win last night, and even though their winning streak against the Oilers had recently ended, I'm betting there is no other team they have preferred to see in the visitors dressing room.
The game was a spirited affair as the play-by-play guys would say, with a number of good hits, plenty of pushing and post whistle scrums, and even a couple of fights. That this was the sixth meeting between these two teams this season (one in six Oilers games have been against the Wild so far this season) certainly helped increase the energy level between the two teams. These games have done wonders for the relationship between Oilers and Wild fans in the blogosphere and the same seems to be true of those on the ice as well.
With the Wild playing in the second of back-to-back games the Oilers had a chance to take advantage of a team that looked to be down and out. In the early stages of the game the Oilers looked like they might be able to seize that advantage for a change but they couldn't cash in on early chances, allowing the Wild to hang around. Two quick goals from the Wild in the second period would leave the Oilers playing catchup the rest of the night. The Oilers kept it close and had some chances to tie the game up but in the end couldn't do it, losing yet another game in Minnesota. Hopefully this losing streak is a little shorter than the last one.
A welcome change in the first period was the Oilers scoring an early goal. 1:24 into the game Taylor Hall converted a Jordan Eberle pass into the slot to give the Oilers the early lead on the first shot of the game. After the Oilers slept through the first period against the Canucks on Boxing Day it was nice to see the team start the game with the lead. Shawn Horcoff could have extended the Oilers lead later in the period when he had, by my estimation, 93% of the net open but instead managed to hit Niklas Backstrom who almost appeared to be turning around to fish the puck out of his net before Horcoff even shot. Shortly after that Horcoff made a great cross ice pass to Ryan Smyth who slid the puck between Backstrom and the posts and right though the crease.
Mikko Koivu would make the Oilers pay for not extending their lead when he tied the game up in the fourteenth minute of the first period. On a four-on-four (this game had a lot of four-on-four play) Koivu made a strong play to the centre of the ice and his shot beat Nikolai Khabibulin to the glove side above his pad. It was a really nice play from the Wild Captain who had missed the last game between these two teams right before the Christmas break. There is a lot to like about the new conference system that will see the Oilers and Wild play only two games against each other starting next season, less of Koivu isn't one of them.
In the second period the Wild would take a stranglehold on the game thanks to goals from Jarod Palmer and Pierre-Marc Bouchard scored 19 seconds apart as the game entered its second half. On Palmer goal, his first in the NHL, Khabibulin gets beat again on the goal side but by a great shot to the top corner. The Bouchard goal though was one that shouldn't beat an NHL netminder; it was a thigh high wrist shot taken from the faceoff dot to Khabibulin's left that beat him on the short side.
In need of a momentum swing the Oilers threw Darcy Hordichuk over the boards following the goal to drop the gloves with Matt Kassian. If fights could actually affect the momentum of a game I would assume that you've have to win the fight. Or at the very least participate in the fight beyond the point where you drop your gloves. Kassian destroyed Hordichuk in a very one sided scrap. By my count Kassian landed 10 punches, Hordichuk two if you count punches to the back that I doubt Kassian even felt. Hordchuk is so valuable I can't believe he isn't paid more.
Ales Hemsky must have been pumped up from watching Hordichuk get punched in the face and rattled a shot of the post on the very next shift. After that the Oilers kept coming at the Wild and Ladislav Smid cut the lead to one with his third goal of the season (no really Smid has three goals) of a beautiful cross ice pass from Hall who was out with Anton Lander and Ben Eager because Hordichuk was sitting in the penalty box. That might be the best thing Hordichuk has done all season.
The Oilers wouldn't have much of a chance to tie the game up though as the Wild once again took a two goal lead when Dany Heatley knocked home a loose puck in front of the Oilers net 46 second after the Smid goal. Coming out from behind the net Marek Zidlicky threw the puck into the crease bouncing it off Hemsky and Jeff Petry before making it's way to Heatley who Petry tried to tie up but the veteran got his stick loose to tap home the Wild's fourth goal.
To start the third period Hordichuk again challenged Kassian, presumably to make up for his poor showing in the earlier fight and again took a bunch of punches to the face en route to his second loss of the night. I'll give credit where credit is due though, at least Hordichuk landed a couple of punches in this fight and even gave Kassian a bit of a bleeding nose, but he still lost this fight by a wide margin. Is it possible that a designated hitter that can't fight is even more useless than one who can?
Devan Dubnyk would replace Khabibulin for the third period and would make a number of quality saves to keep the Oilers within striking distance of the Wild as they tried to come back from a two goal third period deficit. The Oilers trimmed the Wild lead to one when Horcoff snapped home a shot from from the Wild slot near the seven minute mark of the period. After that the Oilers had a number of good chances to tie the game, including one from Hemsky where he looked skyward after, and even had a powerplay in the final minutes of the game but they couldn't beat Backstrom for the equalizer.
News and Notes:
- While I enjoy coming up with new ways to point out that Hordichuk is a completely useless hockey player I'm going to instead defer to Bruce who summed up Hordichuk's night perfectly last night with this tweet: Darcy Hordichuk stats tonight: 2:43 TOI, 0 shots, 0 hits, 0/1=0% in faceoffs, 10 PiM, 2 badly-lost fights & a team-worst Corsi of -4.
- Hall was simply amazing last night. You know about about the goal and the assist but he also registered five shots and attempted another seven. He played 19:46, trailing only Horcoff and Smyth among the Oilers forwards, and recorded a team best Corsi of +15. This team with and without Hall are two completely different creatures.
- Only Lander and Hordichuk recorded a negative Corsi for the Oilers. At the other end of the rink only Kassian and Warren Peters were in positive territory for the Wild. If the fans at Hockey Wilderness had a sense of humour they'd probably really enjoy that.
- Corey Potter and Colten Teubert had a good night together. Teubert had one ugly giveaway but for the Oilers who have nothing but holes on their blue line having a pairing other than Tom Gilbert and Smid play a good game had to be at least a little encouraging.
- That's it for the Oilers and Wild this season. The Oilers finish with seven points in six games despite winning only twice. After six games versus the Wild in their last 36 the Oilers will now play the Wild just twice in the next 128 games thanks to realignment.
- Kassian was named the first star of the game. He played 2:12 and shows up nowhere else on the scoresheet except for his three penalties totalling 20 minutes. Sounds like a worthy first star performance to me.