Was it the birth of a legend, or was it just another false saviour? There have been so many through the years. How many Kid Lines has this team run out, seen notch a couple fantastic efforts, then fade into nothingness. Where today there are Ales Hemsky and Dustin Penner, once there was Bernie Nicholls, or Craig Simpson, or some other good-but-not-great player who constantly seemed on the verge of taking that last, longest step into immortality.
Nobody gains immortality at expense of the Columbus Blue Jackets. It is a contradiction in terms, even this season when the Blue Jackets are quite good and the Oilers, by every metric except wins and losses, are not. The true test will come when this alloy of old and new faces someone worthy of bearing witness to greatness. But we cannot condemn their brilliance by the opposition it faces. The Oilers were down and out, their corpse twitching on the pavement, blood pouring from their wounds, waiting only for the police to draw a chalk outline around them.
Then the surge came, so gently I reckoned I could hear strings in the background, like an orchestra playing up to the crescendo. Dustin Penner almost lovingly tucking a puck past his old friend Mathieu Garon on the short side. Seven minutes later, Ales Hemsky repeating with power what Penner achieved with finesse. And in the third period it was Penner again, banging in the tying goal and from that point on it was only a question of how many the Oilers would win by. When Penner ripped a wristshot that caromed off of Garon straight into Lubomir Visnovsky's wheelhouse, it almost felt like they were showing off: next one, I'll bank off the scoreboard.
The Oilers' leaders were true of heart and the team followed. Robert Nilsson ended proceedings with a perfect backhand into the empty net, a routine play save for the fact that he was halfway between his own blue and goal lines at the time. It was that sort of night. Lead and we shall follow. Or, to pick a more conventional hockey metaphor, the team just climbed on the first line's back.It was a statement game for young Sam Gagner. Some scribes - and I am one of them - said the Oilers made a mistake taking the Son of Dave over Jakub Voracek in the draft all those years ago. Voracek had the complete package, whereas Gagner was a flash in the pan with a junior club that had always overinflated its players' results. Voracek spent an extra season seasoning in junior, Gagner made the jump too early. And yes, Gagner has played far tougher competition than Voracek so far in their respective careers, but Voracek's conventional numbers are so far beyond Gagner's and at root hockey is a game where your guys have to score more than the other guys.
Well, Voracek had two assists, both well-earned. And Gagner had two assists. But Gagner also scored a lovely little goal, was a dervish up and down the ice, and won seven of nine faceoffs into the bargain, as if to add a little "anything you can do I can do better" facewash to his Czech adversary. So far on the year, Gagner is ahead of Voracek in goals and points and playing his toughest competition yet, and even in the hearts of hard-boiled cynics like myself there cannot help but be a little surge of hope.
I do not subscribe to the doctrine of the Big Goal. The greatest advantage of scoring a goal near the end of the period is that you just scored a goal, not when it came. But Gagner seems increasingly to be at ease with the spotlight in a way that few of his generation can boast. Gagner played his heart out in the Battle of Alberta, scored a dagger of a goal and had an all-round fine game against Vancouver, and with the Oilers so rattled at home by the Blue Jackets he played superbly; a game that would make him the first star almost any other night. I do believe that athletes react in different ways to pressure, that - to boil it down to a much-loathed word - some are "clutch" and some are not. Sam Gagner increasingly is coming out well in that measure.
Shawn Horcoff? The veteran, the man supplanted by this beardless youth and stripped of his rightful inheritance on the Oilers first line? Alas, mortal once again! Given the strongest possible signal to shape up he reacted with another pedestrian effort similar to those that have dogged him all year. His faceoff percentage was poor for the second straight game, losing fourteen of twenty-four. He was defensively sound and did not make a single mistake. But where was the sly creativity that we have so long loved from Horcoff? If the old steadiness of hand and heart is back Horcoff will contribute to this team, but what happened to the little coups of audacity, the cheeky backhand passes and clever little flicks up the neutral zone, that so defined him as a first line centre rather than another Michael Peca? Even in Horpensky's brief cameos this season it was Horcoff who was along for the ride, fighting the puck while Hemsky and Penner made the world revolve around them. Every rise has a fall, and Shawn Horcoff may be the great tragedy so far in this Oilers season.
At the end, it all comes back to Hemsky and Penner. The former having shed the sickness that nearly felled him against Vancouver even as it ravaged his teammates (flu? a preoccupation for mere mortals!), dancing among the best all-round defensive team in the Western Conference like he were Guy Lafleur come amongst us again. And Penner, once again earning the "fatso!" chants in sheer, disbelieving admiration rather than scorn. Some of us always believed. The underlying numbers were always there, and for someone allegedly so soft and lazy he had the oddest way of getting elite results anyway. But we were, in a strange way, wrong. Properly motivated and with a coach who truly believes in him, Penner has moved from mere greatness to being truly, terrifyingly good. His physical dominance this season, the way he combines the primal fear of being torn from limb from limb with the fear of being executed just as swiftly by his puck skills, has been equaled by no Oiler but Messier, and that is the most rarefied air that any hockey player can breathe.
The Oilers met a better team tonight, and they came out the victors. Two men were responsible for this. Pat Quinn would do well to heed this lesson.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars:
18th Star: D Jason Strudwick. Another standard bad game from the journeyman defenseman and dominant frontrunner for the Golden Rooster. Strudwick played a relatively light 18:02, less than Taylor Chorney and ahead of only the flu-stricken Ladislav Smid among Oiler defensemen, and Tom Renney seemed to be conspicuously avoiding Rick Nash and company whenever Strudwick and Chorney went over the boards. Yet Strudwick still struggled conspicuously, being taken wide or outmuscled for the puck by such luminaries as Kristian Huselius and Jason Chimera, who humiliated Strudwick to score Columbus's fourth goal of the night and seemingly put them in control. His repeated failure to get the puck out of the zone resulted in, among other things, a Nikolai Khabibulin tripping penalty. In truth, Strudwick got away with a fair bit himself.
Strudwick's foibles are, of course, forced onto the Oilers by the injuries to Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios. But his performances have been simply intolerable and he's shown no sign in the last year of being able to raise his game. Strudwick may be a slightly better player than, say, Theo Peckham, but the additional experience for a promising prospect would be well worth the marginal drop-off in skill. Even Dean Arsene seems like he'd at least provide a different dimension than Strudwick, who seems like Steve Staios with even less footspeed and puck presence this season.
19th Star: LW Mike Comrie. Along with O'Sullivan, Comrie was the only Oiler to go -2 on the night. But O'Sullivan was active all over the ice, mustered five shots, looked better than usual defensively, and while mediocre was at least inoffensive. Comrie merely repeated what we've seen from him the last few games: bad at even strength and worse on the power play. He was never a very good power play man, and his continued presence on the man advantage is simply staggering. Comrie's entire career suggests that he can't get it done in the NHL 5v4, but he's a silky offensive player so therefore he must be good on the power play. It is ridiculous and patently untrue, and with his ill-conceived passes and lack of vision it's costing the Oilers goals.
We know that Comrie can play, but he needs to have his role reduced. Play him with O'Sullivan and Jacques and keep him the hell away from any special teams. Let them take on third-tier opposition, where Comrie and O'Sullivan can feast and Jacques can do little harm. Mike has the ability to be a contributor at even strength, but he needs to be in the right position to succeed. And his power play ineptitude is bordering on the legendary.
20th Star: D Denis Grebeshkov. A guy with a nickname like "LSD Blotter" is going to wind up on this list from time to time. It started out bad for Grebeshkov, who made Kristian Huselius's first goal a bit too easy for Jakub Voracek as he span and sent in a perfect backhand pass. That was not the end of his twenty-four minutes of suffering, either. On the powerplay, Grebeshkov sent wide-open, elementary passes onto Lubomir Visnovsky's backhand, forcing the Oilers to reset. At even strength, Grebeshkov seemed in over his head regardless of the opposition, being beaten by Rick Nash or R.J. Umberger with equal aplomb. He was not at his worst, and he didn't send any of his trademark passes to nowhere or decapitate one of his own players with a slap shot. But he was bad.
Full marks to Grebeshkov so far this season. He's been Edmonton's best defenseman next to Ladislav Smid, and his development over the last two seasons has been more than encouraging. He has improved in the mental aspect of the game and these crazy nights which once accounted for two games out of every three are becoming more and more infrequent. But they're still there, and until he eliminates them from his repertoire I cannot help but view Grebeshkov with a mixture of hope and apprehension.
16 points: Jason Strudwick
11 points: Mike Comrie
8 points: Denis Grebeshkov, Nikolai Khabibulin
6 points: Jean-Francois Jacques
3 points: Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Ryan Stone
1 point: Tom Gilbert, Ales Hemsky