Devan Dubnyk puts one in the win column almost single-handedly on a night the Oilers don't deserve a victory.
Alright, the formalities of the post-game review are at the bottom, but we've got a lot to discuss before we get to that.
This game was an abomination. The Oilers walked away with a regulation win because of Devan Dubnyk, the forechecking of Hemsky and Hall and the laziness of James Wisniewski. (Really it was 98% Dubnyk though). The Oilers were terrible basically everywhere tonight, and I could spend the next few (read: many) paragraphs rambling about a missed assignment here or a failed breakout there, but there are bigger fish to fry after watching 60 minutes of that mess.
First off, before the game even started, Krueger scored some points by being willing to split up his D pairings. He's got very few good options, and putting Potter, Corey in a top 4 role certainly isn't among the best ones, but that, combined with his willingness to bench a $4M player in Ryan Whitney (again...seriously well done coach!) sends a message to Tambellini & Co.: "Look what you're giving me to work with here!"
Let's go line-by-line, because everyone deserves to be called out for something except the goaltender tonight.
Line 1 - Hall - Gagner - Hemsky
You guys are the big boys on this team and are carrying the load offensively. So, that being said. Stop bleeding scoring chances against would you? It's getting absurd that the "Tough minutes line" is getting smacked around by the worst teams in the league.
While we're at it, I'll take this time to address that powerplay. Could someone PLEASE learn how to gain access to the zone? The team is pretty great once they get set-up inside the line, though Hall and Nugent-Hopkins seem to think they play the same position right now, which is a problem. It doesn't really matter though, because they spend the first 1:40 of each man advantage just trying to get across the blueline. I'm all for crossing the line with possession whenever possible, but if it's not possible, get it deep and go dig it out. Hall, Eberle, Hemsky, Hartikainen and to some extent Gagner are all good at gaining control of the puck along the wall, so why the hesitancy to throw it in deep and chase it after the first 19 zone entries attempts fail? I know there's not a lot of practice time in the shortened season, but really, it's bordering on pathetic at this point.
Line 2 - Yakupov - RNH - Eberle.
The story of the night here is injuries, or the possibility of the existence of injuries. RNH is a shadow of a hockey player right now. He's not just playing poorly for a former #1 overall pick, he's playing poorly for any NHL player. He's just awful right now. The question is...is this just a string of poor play (which is bad news), or is this being caused by his lingering shoulder issues? If it is the latter, someone needs to tell Steve Tambellini to GET HIM THE HELL OFF THE ICE!!!!!! The Oilers need this guy to be Doug Weight. A 1+ P/G #1 centre for the long haul. If he's got a shoulder problem that could become something serious. Sacrifice the short term for the sake of the long. It's not even a contest here. The Oilers aren't likely to win the cup this year. They have young players who are still learning to survive tough minutes at the NHL level, no third pairing on D and a fossil of a former NHL goalie as their back-up netminder. Not exactly built for a deep playoff run in their current form.
The fact is, given the late start to the season, we're already about 9 months away from the start of NEXT season. If RNH is going to need surgery on that shoulder, get him out and get it fixed. Give him time to heal and strengthen it before next year. Taylor Hall was FORCED to sit out extra time because of the lockout, and his recovery was better for it. Make the smart call with RNH now to preserve his long-term impact for this team. If this isn't a shoulder thing, and he's just playing this poorly. Well, that's screwed up on a whole different level.
Second injury concern. After getting dropped with a hard hit by Jack Johnson in the third period tonight, Jordan Eberle took a few minutes off to get cleaned up (his visor cut his nose it appears) before getting right back out on the ice. If within the next 10 days, Eberle finds himself on the IR and the cause can be traced back to this hit, EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF THE OILERS COACHING AND MEDICAL STAFF SHOULD BE FIRED. How many times are players going to need to learn from the Sydney Crosby's, the Marc Savard's, and the Gabriel Landeskog's of the world before they understand that if you think for one second that you might have a head injury, you cannot play one more second of hockey until it is properly treated. Again, a stupid decision in a game in the first quarter of the season that could adversely affect the fortunes of the team for the long term. It's possible it's nothing and Eberle is fine other than a cut on his nose, but they better be damn sure. Otherwise, Oiler fans should picket the team's offices demanding repercussions for those involved in this decision.
Line 3 - Hartikainen - Belanger - Paajarvi
Easily the line I have the least issues with. I like it much better when this is the fourth line (not because I'm in favour of them seeing reduced ice time, but because it means there is another legitimate line on the team). That said, Being good on the draws, strong on the cycle and having decent possession numbers doesn't mean a damn thing if you're not turning that into the occassional advantage on the scoreboard. Though this unit's primary role is not offense, Paajarvi's goal alone (which was scored shorthanded while playing with Gagner) doesn't excuse them from showing virtually none of it. Other than Hartikainen getting some PP time, this line is basically the place goals go to die. A little secondary support for the previous two trios would be great, since they can't always be.
Line 4 - Eager - Smyth - Petrell
I like to call this "The Placeholder Line". Eager is holding a place for Smyth while he covers centre. Smyth is covering for Belanger while he moves up to step-in for Horcoff, and Petrell is a temporary replacement for Ryan Jones. Basically, this line should become 94-20-28 down the road. What happens with Eager, Petrell and Hordichuk is anyone's guess and I question whether anyone other than the players' families and maybe Don Cherry probably care. Eager has shown two 10 second stints of usefulness (one in each of the last two games) since returning from injury, but at the end of the day, is a far inferior player to Smyth when he is free to return to that position.
Speaking of Ryan Smyth...WHAT THE HELL is with the awful penalties? Does he want the team to get more special teams' practice? Or maybe he just hates killing penalties himself so he figures he'll just take every single one on behalf of his team? It's possible that this is just a player who is struggling to adapt with age catching up to him and the game beginning to pass him by, but only a couple of these penalties appear to have been due to him being beat on a play. Most have just been careless and stupid. I will always love Ryan Smyth, but he is hurting this team right now far more than he is helping it.
I'm going to address this group all at once because there is a lot of cross-over in the pairings. First of all, Smid and Petry need to take some accountability here. Jeff Petry is a fantastic player on a great contract and Smid was developed into a proven performer, but the fact that they were split up in order to address the glaring weakness of the third pairing is as much an indictment of their play as it is of Potter and Fistric (and Whitney for that matter). If the Smid/Petry pairing was as strong as they played last year, there would be no discussion about splitting them up because the team's top four would be solid and the focus would rightfully be on the atrocity that is the 5/6/7 spots of this group. Smid and Petry have allowed their play to become part of the discussion about what ails this blueline instead of being one of the few things that didn't. Petry looks heavier than last year, and while his physicality has increased, I think his skating has suffered for it. Smid is guilty almost exlusively of poor decision making and of not identifying opposing threats in his own zone in a timely fashion. These are simply brain cramps that are happening repeatedly. Game after game after game and they need to stop now. Maybe taking Smid away from the reliability of Petry and putting him with Corey "Chaos" Potter is the right thing to get those synapses firing again.
The real failing on the blueline is with management's continued inability to go out and get a player who can competently fulfill even a bottom pairing role. A top 4 option would be substantially better, but even someone who can end the Potter experiment and provide 8-10 minutes of reliable defensive responsibility would be a gigantic step forward from where this team has been over the last few seasons. Ralph Krueger, by continually benching a $4M player and splitting up his 2nd pairing out of sheer lack of alternatives, is sending a smoke signal up asking for reinforcements. Let's hope that MacT can point it out to Tambi who seems to have trouble with simple things at times.
There are a laundry list of other things that could be discussed about this team, but I'm already approach 2,000 words here and haven't really spoken very much about today's effort, if you can call it that.
So, without further delay, here are your game high (or low) lights:
Here is the Clint Eastwood game summary:
1 - Devan Dubnyk. Out-Freaking-Standing.
2 - Parts of the game from Gagner, Hall, Hemsky, J. Schultz and Hartikainen
3 - James Wisniewski (if you're an Oilers fan that is. Watch his laziness on the MPS game-winner, that's the stuff legends are made of)
4 - Jeff Petry's play on the 5-3 penalty kill.
5 - Krueger's decision to play with his defensive pairings.
Ryan Smyth. His new-found penchant for taking penalties doesn't belong in the "Ugly" category because it's just stupid.
Here are the three stars:
The Copper & Blue Three Stars:
★★★ - James Wisniewski
★★ - Sam Gagner
(Miles of empty space)
★ - Devan Dubnyk