There's an old cliche for even more mediocre writers than myself that "both teams came to play". I'm not sure what the opposite of that is. Both teams came to lounge on the beach and ask Ales Hemsky to rub suntan oil onto their back, pretending it's all a joke but secretly, desperately hoping he'll say yes? Whatever it is, it applied tonight.
A sloppy road game, a decent effort, zero points and zero chance. The Oilers seem to have this Fall for Hall thing pretty much down.
The game was not entertaining, nor was it tightly played, but it was close. Encouraging, even. Ethan Moreau did good things, calling upon the Spirit of 2004 where he nearly willed the Oilers into the playoffs on his own, scoring a legitimately impressive shorty and putting up a far better all-round game than I think any of us expected. Jean-Francois Jacques, Jason Strudwick... so many of the usual suspects played pretty decently. Good times. I'd be planning the parade if we had any scoring forwards left alive.
But just as importantly, there was never any real chance we'd win that game. A moment of terror in the last minute, perhaps, with Jeff Deslauriers on the bench and the Oilers buzzing around Jonas Hillier's goal. Pat Quinn had done his best, putting out such handsless men as Fernando Pisani, Patrick O'Sullivan, and Tom Gilbert, but the Oilers still looked dangerous. "My god," we could not help but murmur, "what if they accidentally bang that thing in and we get a point?" Nightmares of settling for Seguin sprang unbidden to mind like tortured spirits.
Catastrophe averted, luckily, as the impotence of the Oilers attack held on just long enough. Who says Pat Quinn can't get the most out of these boys?
Do you realize that we scored more shorthanded goals tonight than we had all season prior? That's frightening - not so frightening as Ryan Potulny getting time on an NHL penalty kill, but pretty damned frightening. On the other hand, the referees called approximately one googol penalty minutes in the game, with poor Bobby Nilsson being tagged with a bench minor for unsportsmanlike conduct after Todd Marchant's goal as well as a dubious slashing penalty at the twenty minute mark of the third period. Not to pull a Bruce and complain about the refereeing, really. They were only as bad as the players they were assigned to protect.
Jeff Deslauriers seems to be settling down, happily for us. His infuriating inconsistency may be a thing of the past. For the last several weeks, he has been reliably terrible. Tonight was a lovely example, being embarrassed by both Bobby Ryan goals. We know what we're getting from Jeff Deslauriers, one shutout at the beginning of the month aside. What we're getting is fodder for lovely conversations like "can Bryan Pitton really be any worse?" and "if Vitaly Vishnevski and a fourth-rounder landed Dallas a young goaltender whose worst NHL save percentage is just 0.001 behind Jeff Deslauriers's best professional save percentage, how unbelievably stupid is Steve Tambellini to not make a trade like that?"
Conversations are good. They give us something to do besides watch the Oilers.
The story has been the same for the Oilers for a few games now. They outshot Anaheim, just like they outshot Phoenix. They played as hard as their AHL skill level would allow them. They wasted passes and skated ineffectually and chased the puck carrier too often, but that's just because they stink. There are good things in there, a small kernel of delicious popcorn inside the steaming turd. You wouldn't want it no matter how much you washed it off, but it's nice to know it's there.
If Tambellini stops evaluating long enough to muster some courage, grab his gun, and drag Moreau and Steve Staios behind the barn, this team could go somewhere. Sign a couple veterans who aren't oozing, festering sores in the locker room. Have a Canadian Forces sniper in the press box at all times to take out anybody who goes after Hemsky or Gagner. Offer Antero Niittymaki $5 million under the table to pretend he's Nikolai Khabibulin. How does that team not make the playoffs? This isn't hard. We're not the early '90s Washington Capitals - I mean, we are, but there's some skill left. The playoffs are close. I can taste them.
Or maybe that's popcorn.
The Copper & Blue Reverse Three:
18th Star: D Ladislav Smid. A rare appearance on this least flattering of lists for the canny Czech. At the beginning of the year, I thought that Smid was really turning things around and approaching a Barret Jackman-esque level of elite defensive ability combined with Allan Rourke's offense. Perhaps the difference is that we were winning then and are losing now, but Smid has really looked worse and worse since his dance with the swine flu. In the same period, Sam Gagner has gone from a pretty good centre considering he's a teenager to somebody so valuable he should be encased in military-grade foam between games just so we can make sure nothing happens (and then he suffered a knee injury that nobody has commented on yet but we're not talking about that).
Very few defensemen get better when they're going through a revolving restaurant of partners, their goaltender is the French Vesa Toskala, they're either flu-ridden or concussed, and their team is losing games in two-digit stretches. But the sheer distance Smid has fallen from his once-lofty heights are cause for concern. Unlike fellow useless youngster Andrew Cogliano, Smid was really achieving rather than getting gaudy counting numbers with smoke, mirrors, and a lot of puck luck. What, in short, gives?
19th Star: D Steve Staios. He's steady, guys. Steady. As long as he continues to play a core role on this team (16:47 with 4 PIMs), we will steadily continue to plunge into the groundlike a 747 with only two engines left, one of which is on fire.
20th Star: G Jeff Deslauriers. This was easily his best 20th star game of the season. He was the worst Oiler, but he wasn't as much the worst Oiler as he's so often been. Congratulations, Jeff! You pretty much shoved it up the backsides of your critics once and for all with this one.