Let's be honest with each other. NHL games in the morning are just ridiculous. After a very pleasant evening last night, I got up at the crack of dawn (well, ten in the morning, which for a Saturday is the crack of dawn) and slogged in front of my computer to watch crappy Flash video of the Oilers getting their teeth knocked out by yet another member of the Western Conference carnival of horrors.
If the Hockey Gods had meant for games to start before five, they would have called it Hockey Afternoon in Canada.
So I'm sitting at my desk with a cup of coffee beside me staring, blearily, at my monitor while still in my pyjamas. I munch on some cold pizza and see the Oilers go down 2-0 to the Stars. "I wish I were in bed," I proclaim to myself, as visions of warm sheets, comfortable blankets, and the sweet embrace of the abyss seems so tempting instead of watching the Oilers lose again. But I am a professional (not really but bear with me). I gird myself to my duty, and check to see if I have any whiskey left, even though noon is probably slightly too early to switch to hard liquor even if the Oilers are playing.
And Ryan Stone belies his nickname by knocking in a Lubomir Visnovsky shot. The team still seems dead, of course, but they didn't get shut out by those bastards and that's what counts. "Moral victory!" I declare. My work here is done. My post-game thread will be a bouncy chorus of light and cheeriness because really, we scored a goal and that's most of winning a game done right there.
Then we scored another one.
It was Ladislav Smid who did it, too, so I was worried at first. "Goddammit," I said, "I'm hallucinating." I immediately drank more coffee, but the distressing visions are still there: that tall drink of water wearing number 5 celebrating like he'd just done the impossible, which I suppose he had. I should have caught on when Ryan Stone picked up a goal or when Jean-Francois Jacques and Patrick O'Sullivan got a two-on-one and didn't completely muff it: the ordinary rules of hockey didn't apply today. Something about playing while the sun was still high had turned us into the Bizzaro Oilers, capable of looking like a proper NHL team for entire shifts at a stretch.
So you know what? Forget what I said a few paragraphs up. Day games for the rest of the season! I want to watch the sunrise and then watch the Oilers! I want to see Dustin Penner slogging to the rink at four in the morning still in his bathrobe! I want the post-game spreads to be bacon and eggs! We might finally be able to grasp a prize worthier than the "Participant" ribbon which has characterized the 2009-10 season.
The Oilers took their sweet time waking up, but they did. For the most part. The coaching never really did: I highly recommend our game-day thread comments, where Scott Reynolds embraced the madness within and spent quite a bit of time tracking defensive pairings to show us what we already guessed: that the pairing of Steve Staios and Jason Strudwick, a duo who commentators call "veteran" because they can't think of anything nicer to say and I call "the Suicide " because I don't have to, play way too much damned hockey.
Staios has had an all right season, although his form has badly sagged the last couple of weeks. But pair him with Strudwick (or Smid) and the result is carnage. He needs somebody with foot speed and the brain to survive all the insane things Staios still does on the ice, minimizing Steady Steve's mistakes while letting Staios ride guys into the corner and bat pucks away and do what he does best. Jason Strudwick just makes many more mistakes, and what results is a series of traumatized screams from Oiler fans as the puck flits around our zone like a moth and Jeff Deslauriers faces far too many close shots for comfort.
Our best pairing was easily and obviously Smid and Visnovsky. It's nice to see the old Lubomir Visnovsky back. We've missed him. Whoever that imposter was who was playing soft on the puck and constantly refused to let his shot go while making cute passes in his own zone for the last month, I'm glad they shipped him back to Slovakia and brought back the thunderingly quick, rifle-firing real version.
Ladislav Smid, of course, is quietly putting up a strong defensive campaign. His offensive effectiveness is nil but he's truly becoming a first-class defensive player. Perhaps all that time with Staios last year was good for him, as he learned what not to do and got a first-class lesson in adjusting to a defensive partner's foibles. With Smid on form, Visnovsky can afford to cut loose a bit more, and hopefully we'll see him take some more liberties when the Oilers are hunting for a goal.
The forwards were generally an unimpressive but unoffensive group of mediocre players doing mediocre things. The line of Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, and Gilbert Brule had the weakest game I've seem them play yet. Penner's early breakaway promised great things, but nothing came of it. Gagner, in particular, spent too much time playing with himself. Twice he came down the left wing into the Stars zone, once in the second period and once in the third period, twice he had Brule wide open down centre, and twice he tried to cut in front himself without achieving anything in the process. Is it one man trying to do too much or one man not trusting a linemate?
Robert Nilsson, on Thursday against Detroit, looked special. On Saturday against Dallas, he looked better than I expected but still not great. A couple nasty giveaways in the second period stifled Oiler chances but in general he seemed more engaged in the play than most of his teammates. This isn't saying much but for a player who has always been condemned for his lack of try, it's promising.
A two-game winning streak is two more than I thought they'd have after these games. Some of our lesser lights - Stone, Jacques, even Andrew Cogliano - are beginning to adjust to what is required of them, and the Oilers are looking better than I'd have guessed. Even the shots and chances were even. It's hard to find much to complain about, but in a game or two I'm sure something will come up.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars, Kept Brief Today Because I Don't Want to Think About the Negative Too Hard:
18th Star: D Steve Staios. The least bad player on his pairing, which may make him feel better but doesn't help my mood any. Just because Strudwick was worse doesn't mean Staios wasn't crummy. There were no patented suicide passes but there were a few pretty awkward rings around the board that looked bad and achieved very little.
Naturally, Tom Renney played Staios for 16:33, least on the team among defensemen but still about 16:32 too often.
19th Star: F Sam Gagner. I briefly explained why up top, and brief is the order of the day. Besides missing his shootout opportunity, Gagner generated very little throughout the game. On Dallas's first goal of the game, the goalscorer Brad Richards had no problems getting past young Sam, and though it was a mismatch Gagner has to do better than he did. His line actually got burned for both goals against, and Gagner was the most culpable.
Patrick O'Sullivan was also up for a spot here, but really, his shootout goal was lovely and at least he had his moments. Worth every penny.
20th Star: D Jason Strudwick. Look up a bit to what I wrote about Staios. Make everything worse. Put in some bold-faced text. Change the ice time to 16:47. That was Jason Strudwick. He's on 26 points in the reverse three stars, which is the most points I suspect he's ever had in his life.
26 points: Jason Strudwick
19 points: Ethan Moreau
11 points: Mike Comrie, Nikolai Khabibulin
9 points: Steve Staios
8 points: Denis Grebeshkov
7 points: Jean-Francois Jacques
6 points: Sam Gagner
5 points: Patrick O'Sullivan
4 points: Jeff Deslauriers, Ales Hemsky, Theo Peckham
3 points: Shawn Horcoff, Patrick O'Sullivan, Ryan Stone
1 point: Andrew Cogliano, Tom Gilbert, Ryan Potulny