The Oilers hot start to the season is officially over. So are those of Nikolai Khabibulin, Tom Gilbert, and Ladislav Smid, whose stellar play had lifted Edmonton to a stunning, unsustainable defensive record for the season's first fourteen games.
Three games later that's all changed. The Oilers limp home from a six-game road trip having suffered consecutive three-goal losses to three of the NHL's truly elite teams, Boston, Detroit and now Chicago. They were by far the second best squad on the ice in all three encounters, having been issued a stark reminder of how far they need to go to become contenders.
As was the case in Beantown, Oilers got off to a miserable start in the Windy City, yielding a pair of quick goals five minutes in. Oiler-killer Jonathan Toews snuck in front to roof one past a deep-in-his-net Khabibulin, then 34 seconds later Steve Montador waltzed past a stationary Lennart Petrell and in alone for the deke and tuck. After Ryan Smyth cut the lead in half with his 10th of the season from one-foot range, Montador struck again on the powerplay, expertly tipping home Nick Leddy's point shot. Duncan Keith got the second helper in that rarest of scoring plays involving three defencemen. It was that kind of night for the Oilers.
In the second the Blackhawks twice stretched the lead to three on goals by Toews and Keith, and the Oilers twice cut it back to two as Jordan Eberle and Shawn Horcoff found the range. After the captain's powerplay strike in the last minute of the second it seemed like the Oilers might be well positioned for a pushback in the third period, but they had nothing left. They were outshot (rare enough for a trailing team) by a convincing 14-7 margin, and outchanced 12-4 by Dennis King's count and 15-3 according to a severely unimpressed Tom Renney. The exclamation point occurred when Taylor Hall seemingly forgot to come on the ice when Nikolai Khabibulin came to the bench for an extra attacker, and the puck went right past where Hall should have been and in for a ridiculously easy empty-netter. Just a brutal lapse by the struggling youngster, whose goal-scoring drought stretched to eight games in this one.
Oilers defensive corps had a tough night as well, not least the previously-stalwart pairing of Gilbert (+2/-9 in scoring chances) and Smid (+3/-12), who are starting to show some cracks after too many hard minutes in too short a span. Putative #3 man Corey Potter was similarly smoked by the scoring chance meter (+3/-8). Up front the bottom six had a difficult night. The re-shuffled fourth line of Eric Belanger between Petrell and Ben Eager were poor, with Petrell in particular having his worst game of the season. The third line, featuring Sam Gagner back at centre between Ryan Jones and a nearly-invisible Magnus Paajarvi, didn't fare much better. (Anton Lander watched this one from the press box.)
As usual it fell to the top six to provide all of the offence. Renney shuffled the deck slightly there as well, flipping right wingers Ales Hemsky and Jordan Eberle. The latter responded with his best game of the road trip, scoring a goal and an assist, although he also took two penalties. Hemsky meanwhile continued to spin his wheels, credited with zero shots on goal for the third time in the four games since his return from shoulder woes. In Detroit he did manage a pair of shots, but both were such muffins that one continues to wonder about the state of his health.
Another worrisome trend is Horcoff's slump in the faceoff circle. He came in under 50% in all six games in the road trip (44/108=41%), including just 4 of 12 in this one. On the bright side, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had by far his best NHL game on the dot, winning 9/13=69%. As usual, Renney ensured that none of those draws took place in Oilers' defensive zone.
The Oilers return home to a much-needed break before preparing to face the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. Hopefully that's long enough to provide them both some rest and some much-needed focus on team and systems play that deserted them over the back half of the road trip.