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Edmonton - Dallas post-game: This one is on the coach

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I had the great pleasure of attending Friday night's (terrific!) game in person courtesy of a surprise gift. Excellent seats, west end zone, 13 rows behind Devan Dubnyk's net. My season tickets back in the glory days were at a similar altitude in the same general area, but it's been a few years since I have sat in the lower bowl, especially in my preferred location behind the net. Once again I was blown away with the sheer speed of the game, how little holes open up suddenly and close down faster still, how quickly a little mistake can be turned the other way. 

As is so often the case, this was a game of mistakes, little ones and big ones. At the end of the night the Oilers had the majority of the play but also the lion's share of the screw-ups, and that was the deciding factor in yet another heartbreaking loss. This time it was 4-3 gobsmacker in regulation to that old nemesis the Dallas Stars, who potted the game winner in the dying seconds to blow up a spirited Oiler comeback.

This was the first time all year that I pinned several of the most critical blunders on the coaching staff. Like most fans I am nonplussed by some of the line combinations and by Quinn's laissez-faire style of line matching, but this game contained some clearcut errors of judgment, especially personnel decisions, at crucial times. More on that down the page.

Just like my last live game against Nashville, Oilers had an excellent first five minutes but couldn't capitalize, then made a bad error as a brutal Tom Gilbert giveaway to Steve Ott was quickly turned into a Trevor Daley one-time blast past a stunned Dubnyk. This gaffe prompted me to comment to my wife that "Gilbert really is the king of the second assist."

A mind-numbing succession of Oiler penalties ensued, including two on one play in which both refs (whom I immediately dubbed "Ben Dover and Drop Yerdrawers") got involved. Shockingly, both of Ethan Moreau's linemates got fingered while thecaptain himself escaped scott free. The subsequent two minutes of action around the Oiler goal right in front of me was breathtakingly exciting: great puck movement, fierce defending, brilliant goaltending by the promising young Dubnyk, and no goals. Oilers killed yet a third penalty before a forechecking Patrick O'Sullivan took an unbelievably silly unsportsmanlike call for a one-handed non-slash of a Star miles from the puck. I'm still not sure who was sillier, O'Sullivan or Dover, but at that point in the game it was an unbelievable call, especially in front of angry fans who were still bearing third degree burns from last game. Predictably -- and I did predict it, as I'm sure thousands of others did -- this was the penalty that wouldn't be killed. Mr. Stability Jason Strudwick made sure of that by expertly tipping Mike Modano's low bullet into the top corner behind a helpless Dubnyk. The game was 12½ minutes old, the scoreboard 2-0, the shot clock 17-2 for goodness sakes.

After that Dover and Yerdrawers did a complete about face, calling the next four penalties -- almost all of the tickytack variety -- on the Stars. Once that score was level at 4 powerplays aside, they pocketed their whistles for the duration and completely ignored the most serious infractions of the night: Mark Fistric's flying elbow of Zack Stortini that pretty much put an end to Zorg's night; Ethan Moreau's dangerous high stick under Brad Richards' visor that had the Stars veteran flinging his gloves in disgust and uncharacteristically tearing into the officials; and a play behind the far net where Patrick O'Sullivan appeared to be hooked around his neck or face by an unidentifiable Star. It was an obvious penalty from my seat 250 feet away, but both refs chose to simply pretend it didn't happen.

Important notes: Like Wednesday, the officiating was unacceptably poor to the point of incompetence. Unlike Wednesday, I do not think incompetent refereeing affected the outcome of the game. But it did affect the game itself.

The first Dallas penalty, a real cheapie, occurred immediately after Strudwick's own-goal, and Ryan Potulny quickly capitalized on a 3-way passing play with Nilsson and Penner to stabilize the score at 2-1. (For some reason Quinn saw fit to switch Penner and O'Sullivan on the powerplay, separating big Dustin from Gagner and Cogliano despite the fact they were having a terrific night together.) After that the powerplay was an epic fail, especially during a three minute stretch in the second period that included a 67-second two-man advantage sandwiched by almost two minutes of 5 on 4. During that entire sequence the shots on goal were 1-1, while nothing came close to finding twine. Shockingly, after the first unit drew the penalty that created the 5-on-3, Pat Quinn didn't use his timeout, and the second unit played the entirety of the two-man advantage, not even coming off when they iced the puck on themselves (a Visnovsky blast that missed the net, ringed the boards, and cleared the zone) 45 seconds into their shift. Instead the three smurfs unit of Gagner, O'Sullivan and Cogliano stayed out and continued to generate nothing. The sight of the puny Cogliano -- with almost zero powerplay duty all season -- attempting to screen the crease throughout the parts of the sequence where the Oilers actually retained possession had me scratching my head; the thought of Dustin Penner cooling his heels on the bench while his linemates spun their wheels with Patrick O'Sullivan had me asking aloud WTF? Incredibly bad decisions by the coach and/or the players on the ice to not switch up there, at least for the last third of the 5 on 3. Arguably, decisions that cost the Oilers this game. A goal at that juncture would have been Huge.

Instead the Oil continued to trail, 2-1, and soon enough it was 3-1 as young Taylor Chorney got trapped up ice by Brian Sutherby's crafty delay and bank pass that set his linemates away 2-on-1. O'Sullivan, Potulny, and Nilsson were AWOL on the backcheck; only Strudwick was back. The defender's job in such a situation is to take away the pass; instead  Strudwick played the puck carrier, Steve Ott, who in turn played Strudwick like a fiddle, faking the shot and feeding Jamie Benn to walk in against the scrambling Dubnyk. Before he was set Benn wired a perfect shot, low stick side. It was beautiful execution by the Stars but flat out lousy defence by the Oiler skaters who yet again hung their young goalie out to dry.

Oilers were a long way from dead, and really started to carry the play against the tiring Stars. Just before the end of the second Penner and Gilbert combined to set up Sam Gagner for a goal so pretty it was selected as TSN's highlight of the night. As Cogliano created some turmoil on Turco's doorstep, Penner drove the slot and slipped a drop pass between his legs to Gilbert who had all kinds of open ice in Penner's wake to make the cross-ice feed to Gagner, who in turn wired it upstairs over a sprawling Turco. That one pulled me out of my seat, even as it had me shaking my head as to how the hell a team with this sort of talent could possibly be in danger of losing its tenth game in a row. I'm still shaking my head about that as I write. Should we just file this whole Star-crossed season under "Shit happens"?

I digress. At that point it must have seemed like a long 20 minutes to the struggling Stars, themselves enduring an horrendous road losing streak that hadn't seen them win an away game in regulation in over two months. Yet the scoreboard remained frozen at 3-2 as the clock gradually ticked down in the third, the Oilers carrying the play and generating the occasional decent chance but never the clear shot needed to beat a red-hot Marty Turco. After his excellent play in the early barrage, Dubnyk was called upon less often but did deliver a number of excellent stops of what would surely have been killer goals against.

Quinn continued to roll the lines, spotting Penner and O'Sullivan in Stortini's place, riding the veteran trio of Moreau-Horcoff-Pisani to shut down Dallas' top line as they had the Sedins on Wednesday.  Although he still displayed his annoying tendency to shoot from the Ford sign rather than cycle the puck, Moreau was clearly more comfortable playing with two other vets; I honestly don't get the impression he trusts younger teammates. The Penner-Gagner-Cogliano trio had a terrific outing, generating numerous scoring chances at even strength. On the blue Quinn rode his top 4 guys, especially down the stretch in the third; Strudwick and Chorney were clearly the third choice.

Just as the game seemed to be winding down to yet another routine regulation loss, however, a series of remarkable events occurred which pumped the building full of helium before cruelly popping the balloon in a matter of seconds. Dubnyk was pulled early for the extra attacker, and instead of their usual panic job the Oilers attacked with desperation and purpose, and for the first time in what seems like decades actually connected for the game-tying goal 6-on-5. It was a strange one, as Gagner's high, hard shot was fended off by Turco, who could only watch helplessly as Mike Modano attempted to control the rebound with his skate only to punt the puck right into the top corner. The debt for the own goal previously credited to the veteran Oiler-killer was shockingly repaid in full in a single instalment, and the game was level with a minute to play. The crowd erupted. Overtime was imminent, and the Oilers were coming on.

Or not. The Moreau-Horcoff-Pisani line which had successfully shut down the Stars top line all night had a terrible shift, unable to clear their zone, and Loui Eriksson slipped behind Moreau and in front of Gilbert for a great chance right on the doorstep, foiled only by an Enormous save by Dubnyk. The crowd breathed a sigh of relief as Quinn and Renney realigned personnel for the faceoff which followed. Pisani came off the ice to be replaced by Ryan Potulny, a second faceoff man with an indifferent defensive record who to the best of my knowledge has never played a shift at right wing as an Oiler. Meanwhile, Denis Grebeshkov took the ice not with his usual defence partner, the $5.6 MM man Lubo Visnovsky, but with ... Jason Strudwick, the $700 K seventh defenceman who has worked his way into the hearts of the coaching staff. A line that has never played together along with a defence pair playing their first even strength shift of the night. Indeed, Strudwick had been sitting on the bench for 10 solid minutes as Quinn rode his top 4 all the way to the tying goal. But now with game "safely" tied, he turned to his trusted -- for reasons that entirely escape me, I have to say -- veteran to clamp things down in Oilers' zone.

Well as many of you saw, the subsequent 12 seconds could be an instructional video on how not to play hockey. Indeed, we have such a video below; the sequence of pain described here begins around the 7:48 mark and is well worth the watch. Horcoff actually won the draw, Grebeshkov worked along the left side right past Moreau who did absolutely nothing to make himself available for an outlet pass or to support the puck carrier in any way. Rather than the safe play of shovelling the puck up the boards and out, Grebs turned to his third option and fed a pass into the middle of the ice. The Stars intercepted and held the zone, while no fewer than four Oilers floundered just inside the blueline, none of them reacting in time to prevent the inevitable. Moreau made matters worse by getting in the way of both of his linemates who were trying to peel back in desperation. Last man back was ... Jason Strudwick, who was himself caught flat footed and too far from the goal. Overreaching, he made a valiant attempt to intercept Richards' cross crease pass to Eriksson  (which Dubnyk appeared to have covered), only to stumble awkwardly as he swatted the puck right into the path of the oncoming James Neal. The rising young Star wasn't about to overlook that gift horse in the goal mouth, and snapped 'er home before Dubnyk had any chance to recover. The crowd screamed, gasped, went silent. We were stunned. 22.2 seconds remained, the game was surely lost. In regulation. Again. How? Why? Oh, why?

Yet even those dying seconds were not without drama as the Oilers charged into the zone, Cogliano fired a shot, the rebound landed right on the stick of Dustin Penner on the doorstep, and Turco sprawled to make the last, and best, of his 35 saves. Penner had had a great game, but so had Turco, and in this decisive instant it was the man in pads who won the day. 

And you know what? I actually didn't mind that ending one bit. A former netminder myself, I'm among the few in these parts who is openly a fan of Marty Turco despite his Oiler-killing ways. Off the ice he's probably the most accessible goalie in the league, witty and personable. On it he's a true entertainer, a standout puckhandler who is not above taking the occasional ridiculous chance. Marty's one of the "funnest" goalies to watch.  I had fun watching him tonight, back in the starting line-up after three straight games wearing the ballcap, his #1 position in jeopardy for the first time since Ed Belfour left town. He responded with an outstanding game, saving his best for last.

I did feel nothing but sympathy for his counterpart. Devan Dubnyk had played valiantly, bailing out his teammates again and again, but was hung out to dry by defensive blunders on 4 out of 4 Stars' goals. The Oilers are a horrifyingly bad defensive team; anybody who wants to pin their bloated goals against record on the young goaltenders should reconsider.

Too bad about those blunders, because otherwise the Oilers outplayed the Stars on the night:

  • They overcame the early 2-17 shots deficit to eventually win that battle, 38-32.
  • The advanced stats made available by Vic Ferrari at timeonice.com show that at even strength the Oil attempted a whopping 27 more shots than did the Stars, with only Taylor Chorney (-3) and Jason Strudwick (-4) on the negative side of the Corsi ledger. Lubo Visnovsky, the man Strudwick replaced in the final minute, posted a nifty +21 to lead all skaters.
  • Edmonton earned 18 even strength faceoffs in the Stars' zone compared to just 7 in the Oilers' end. Just two Oilers started more often in their own zone than Dallas's: Taylor Chorney (+2) and Jason Strudwick (+3).

Does it seem odd to you that the third pairing with the recently-recalled rook and the aging hanger-on -- a pair making less than 7% of the blueline payroll for the night, mind -- would receive anything but the most sheltered of minutes? I'm having trouble getting my mind around that, especially in light of the results.

But while I have questions about strategy, observations of bad play, and the continued frustrations of losing, I have absolutely no complaints about the game as a whole which was as exciting as they come. Just those last dizzying 60-odd seconds included a game-tying goal, a great save to preserve the tie, a game-winning goal, and a great save to seal the win. Thrilling, spectacular, terrible hockey all rolled into a breathtaking minute. It's hard to imagine any of the other major sports delivering such a variety of rapid-fire action.

 * * *

Highlights below, courtesy NHL.com. The package is over 9 minutes, befitting such an action-packed affair.  Worth your time if you've got some.

 

Next up: vs. Chicago, Tuesday January 26, 19:30 MST