As Oilers fans, we've been conditioned to view all events through a constant lens of skepticism and cynicism, adding in a good grain of salt to any positivity and throwing in caveats here and there to keep expectations level. It's just an emotional shield to prevent further injury to our tender hearts, which have taken a beating over the past ten years with no end in sight.
Tonight, I am opening my heart to let some belief and happiness in.
In what many considered their first true test of the season against a strong St. Louis Blues team, the Edmonton Oilers prevailed with a 3-1 win at home to bring their record to 4-1-0 on the season. Let me now throw away all the caveats like games played and "it's early" to just say, while I still can, that the Oilers are in first place in the league right now. Just let me have this sentence for one moment of my life. What an unfamiliar and spectacular sequence of words. [Edit: never mind, the Canucks just ruined that. It was nice for the 45 mins or so it lasted.]
Despite being outshot by the Blues 35 to 23, Papa Talbot and the defense put in some solid work to limit the Blues, conference finalists last season with a 25-11-5 record on the road, to only one goal, stifling the likes of Vladimir Tarasenko in the process. The Oilers offense did their part, putting up three goals against a Blues team that had been undefeated in regulation prior to this game, and all despite a very good showing by Jake Allen.
The Oilers surprised many this season by getting off to much better than expected start to the season at 3-1-0, but a lot of people dismissed this by attributing these wins to the opposing teams' poorness and small sample size, unable to believe the Oilers are capable of being a legitimately good hockey team. While one game and a 4-1-0 record may not be enough to silence the doubts swimming in our mind (the Canucks, after all, are 4-0-0 somehow), it's a great step in showing this team can match up against the best and come away with a win.
Tonight was also the return of Nail Yakupov to Edmonton, but I truly believe and am ecstatic that the win stole the thunder away from this storyline. Yakupov did have the only goal of the night for the Blues, because of course he did, and left the team on relatively good terms, due mostly to his good character obscuring the effect of the uncomfortable position he put his former club in, but the Oilers played well enough to ensure that wasn't the story of the night, which is a refreshing departure from what usually happens when Ghosts of Oilers past visit.
For all the hype surrounding the return of Nail Yakupov to the Oilers, we started the evening with a period in which…nothing really happened. The Oilers didn't play very well or very poorly, save for a few stray giveaways in their own zone, and the Blues played relatively well, leading the shot attempt category 22-16, but did not have much to show for it. In short, if you missed the first period of this game because you were too engrossed in your Tolstoy novel, it probably would have been okay.
The first four minutes were pretty even in terms of rushes, and was the first time this season that no goals were scored in the first few minutes of an Oiler game for either side. A personal highlight was seeing Jordan Eberle personally deliver a check on one Robbie Fabbri in the first minute, a sight classified in the category of "very rare" along with comets and dragons. Talbot made a beautiful left pad save five minutes in to keep the game scoreless, and McDavid had a couple of shot attempts generated solely by the power of the Mach 4 engine powering his 19-year old legs, one of which drew a penalty and led to the Oilers' first and only powerplay of the period. After a lethargic showing against Carolina in which the powerplay was 0/3, it was much of the same this period-- save for one chance by Nugey and Maroon, the Oilers failed to establish any real sustained pressure as their zone entries were rather messy and easily broken up.
The emerging youngsters Slepyshev and Pitlick continue to play with great drive, but made a couple of defensive errors in the first-- Slepyshev had a messy pass to Kassian while attempting to exit their own zone, which led to a giveaway and shot from Yakupov (luckily deflected), and Pitlick similarly was not able to corral the puck in his own zone, leading to a shot from the speedy Robby Fabbri. Slepyshev did set up a nice shift near the end of the period with some great work to maintain possession in the Blues zone, but unfortunately got called for a questionable high-sticking penalty which led to a powerplay for the Blues to end the period. It'll be interesting to see how they manage their aggressive, dynamic play with defensive responsibility as they mature this season.
I would also like to note that Milan Lucic, for some reason, has a knack for continually missing cross-ice feeds right in front of the net-- he missed two from Gryba and Eberle in the first period of this game alone. I prayed to the deities that one of these days he will make that magical connection with the puck and tap it in.
The highlight of this period may have been a nice gesture during the first TV timeout, during which a tribute video aired for the recently departed Nail. I dearly wish they had played his brilliant singing from this summer to encapsulate the spirit of this young man, but a touching montage of his best moments sufficed (I guess). I will leave it here again just so you can appreciate it.
Because this is the Edmonton Oilers, after all, the thing we were all thinking might happen but hoping would not happen…happened. Nail Yakupov scored at 3:37 in the second period to give the Blues a 1-0 lead, assisted by Edmundson and Jaskin-- it was his second goal of the season, and let's be honest, with the history the Oilers have with their exes, it would have been really strange if Nail Yakupov didn't score in his first game back. Seeing Nail on the bench having a laugh with his new teammates gave me feelings both sweet and salty, kind of like a good salted caramel, but one I don't get to eat. It's complicated.
But really, who needs Nail Yakupov when you have Tyler Pitlick? One of the nicest surprises so far in this season, Pitlick deflected a point shot from Sekera at 6:22 while channelling his best Kevin Pillar impression, leaping through the air to even the score at 1-1. I'm going to need some suggestions on nicknames for Pitlick because I'm seeing an increased frequency in occasions for saying his name with affection and enthusiasm-- PitPit? Pitty Party?
Also of note on that goal was the nice shot block by Kris Russell on the other end of the rush that led to the counterrush and shot from Sekera-- Russell has already wrapped his arms around his favourite statistic early on in the season, leading the league with 19 shots blocked. Lying down may not be a particularly useful skill in real life, but seeing Russell lay out and block shots frequently has really increased my appreciation for this move and the way it saps the momentum of any cycle the other team has going, often leading to a nice rush the other way and good scoring opportunities like the one tonight.
The Oilers trailed the Blues in shots 16-21 at the end of the second period but were tied at 1-1 on the scoreboard, thanks to a stable performance by Cam Talbot and some great defensive work. The Blues blueline was also noticeable for the envy it managed to spark in me-- Colton Parayko is a beast of a boy out there, and having Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk in addition to that just seems unfair. Yes, I am pouting.
It happened, guys. It finally happened. The Loochness Monster finally broke free from the curse and converted a pass from McDavid to put the Oilers up 2-1 just 36 seconds into the third. It was slick, it was smooth, it was a perfect feed from McDavid cross-ice that Lucic slammed into the net for his second of the season. The goal was reminiscent of a sweet alley-oop from Kobe to Shaq by their decidedly shorter and more Caucasian counterparts up North. Also essential to this goal was some great patience shown by Jordan Eberle, who made a number of crafty passes throughout the game, to feed McDavid the puck at the perfect moment to initiate the rush.
A really questionable high-sticking call against Eric Gryba led to a Blues powerplay shortly after, one which featured a litany of scoring opportunities, all stymied by Papa Talbot. The Oilers were 3/3 on the penalty kill tonight despite great pressure from the Blues, and the defenders, particularly Oscar Klefbom and Kris Russell, made a number of excellent small plays to help the Oilers maintain the lead.
Seven minutes into the third period, there was a great series of end-to-end rushes featuring exhilarating speed and breathtaking goaltending from both teams. Jordan Eberle was robbed by Jake Allen on one end, followed by a beautiful save on Tarasenko by Talbot a few seconds later, then another great save by Allen on a Lucic shot moments later going the other way.
Despite the flurry of action and relentless pressure by the Blues late into the game, reminiscent of the ending of the previous game against the Hurricanes, the puck managed to stay outside the Oilers net. Connor McDavid put the nail in the coffin at 19:22, turning on the engines that power his legs and netting the empty netter for his fourth goal of the season. Oilers escape with a 3-1 win. Hooray!
- Milan Lucic had a breakout game, potting the game winner and looking particularly dangerous in the third period, showing some soft hands and deft puckhandling to create chances out of seemingly nothing. It seems he and the puck finally worked out their differences, and hopefully this leads to some more conversions on those juicy cross-ice passes in the future.
- Oscar Klefbom had another nice game-- some very great work to break up a dangerous looking rush from Jaden Schwartz, and then again with another great defensive move on Alex Steen during the same shift. Klefbom showed great stick usage on a number of occasions to deflect shots, continually neutralizing potential opportunities and finished the night with six shot blocks, even more shots than Kris Russell (5) this game. He was also the only defenseman to finish with a positive CF%. *swoon*
- Kris Russell led the team with 23:18 in ice time tonight, and the trust in him is well-deserved-- he had another great night defensively with some excellent positioning to break up chances, timely shot blocks, and even some offensive quarterbacking, showing great patience with the puck in the second period to sustain a nice shift from the top line. There are so many little things he does right, like a nifty play to break up a pass on the Blues powerplay early in the third period. Seeing #4 on the ice has become a soothing sight now.
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins looked great this game, even though he was held off the scoresheet again. Throughout the three periods he had great rushes up the ice, consistently looking dangerous and entering the zone cleanly time after time by simply being very fast and carrying the puck on his own stick, often leading directly to a shot up close. It's only a matter of time before his great speed and puckhandling are rewarded with a goal.
- Anton Slepyshev was another player who stood out for consistently creating opportunities with great speed and aggressive plays-- the effort level is definitely there on every shift. Finished with the highest CF% on the team (57.89%).
- Cam Talbot once again bailed his team out on a night when they were badly outshot, finishing with a 0.971% save percentage. Dad powers are real.
- Leon Draisaitl had a great night in the faceoff circle, finishing with a sparkling 78%
- Andrej Sekera had a great assist on the Pitlick goal but had some iffy moments defensively, on a number of occasions failing to clear the puck in crucial moments.
- Nail Yakupov scored. Maybe I'm 2% happy for him, but also 98% sad that this always has to happen to the Oilers.
- Being outshot 35-23 is not optimal for wins, and the Oilers were lucky that Talbot was able to harness his fatherly powers to bail them out. Did I mention Cam Talbot is a father now?
- The powerplay was listless once again, though there were only two opportunities tonight. The St. Louis powerplay was also 0/3 but looked much more consistently structured and dangerous.
- That penalty taken by Gryba for high-sticking early in the third was annoying, and came at a critical time when the Oilers just managed to grab the lead. I really don't like seeing players sell calls that clearly should not be penalties. I know it happens both ways, and the Oilers have gotten some high-sticking calls go their way when the stick did not make contact, but the way Nail Yakupov grabbed his chin when Gryba's stick hit him in the chest had shades of soccer all over it.
Game in a Haiku
Copper beats yellow,
Our ex Nail feels blue indeed.