It was always obvious that the storyline of tonight's game would center around two key individuals. Just as everyone expected, we turn our attention accordingly to Matt Benning and Mark Letestu as the visiting Edmonton Oilers defeated the New Jersey Devils 2-1 in overtime, a well-deserved and hard fought victory vaulting them back into second place in the Pacific Division.
Unlikely hero Mark Letestu's laser shot in overtime at 3:59 sealed the win for the Oilers, a game that probably should have been decided in regulation had it not been for a masterful 41-save performance by a determined Cory Schneider, coming off a game last night when he was pulled after allowing three goals on five shots. It was Letestu's eight goal of the season and fourth game-winning goal, one of the many pleasant surprises to emerge this season for an Oilers team that now has as many road wins this season as they had all of last season.
Perhaps some would have considered this game a good measuring stick for the Oilers' progress in the post-Hall era, a way to evaluate if the gutsy, viscerally lopsided trade by Chiarelli had paid off. Obviously, comparing the Oilers' 49 points on the season to the Devils' 40, or the individual performances of Hall and Larsson in this game, would not have sufficed as an accurate indicator of the success of the trade, and perhaps there's no good way to make a one-for-one comparison to evaluate such a context-heavy, team-centered trade.
Seeing Taylor Hall was almost like getting a little glimpse of the Oilers’ past few seasons, the residual letdown and pain indelibly associated with the sight of a player who went through all the lows, only to depart just before the highs. That brief reminder of the past also served as mirror in which we caught a glimpse of the Oilers of the present, an introspective moment of recognition for how far the team has come.
Perhaps most comforting and important, however, is that the Hall/Larsson storyline was largely overshadowed a very good performance by the Oilers as a whole, who dominated play throughout the night and outshot the Devils 43-20, handily winning the Corsi battle 77-34. It was fitting that the unlikeliest of heroes emerged to score on a night when the Oilers were trailing 0-1 for most of the night until Matt Benning's game-tying goal, the first of his career, at 3:33 in the third period, despite dominating possession and concentrating the play in the New Jersey zone for most of the night. One big reason discussion around the high profile trade has been hushed all season is the strong overall play of the team, thanks largely to the emergence and marked improvement of players like Benning and Letestu, as well as the less surprising but still significant development of McDavid, Klefbom, and Draisaitl, who all had excellent games tonight.
"I thought we played a real good game," said Coach McLellan after the game. "We held on to pucks, we wore them down in their end. They played the night before, and there [have] been some times this year when we haven't done that to teams…patient enough to stick with it, didn't have to open it up that much, and eventually got the win, but it took a lot of work to get it."
Overtime hero Letestu emphasized the importance of the team's newfound confidence and resilience as key for making sure they sustained pressure despite a score that didn't initially reward their efforts.
"Tonight was a good example of us sticking to our game plan; our first two periods were solid, a lot of jump, in on a lot of forechecks... Nobody got frustrated, we knew we were going to get one, knew the way we were going to score was the way we got one-- an ugly one."
It was New Jersey who got on the board first as Miles Wood, secretly James Franco embarking on his next pet project as a hockey player, made Eric Gryba look downright silly, speeding past him and putting the puck through the five hole to give the Devils a 1-0 lead at 9:44 in the first period.
It would remain scoreless for an extended period of time, and despite outshooting the Devils 30-13 after the first two periods, the Oilers still weren't able to solve Cory "Ginger Wall of Hoboken" Schneider, who was clearly determined to put an embarrassing showing and blunder last night past him. Because it's the Oilers, of course they got an angry, motivated goalie of Schneider's calibre the night after a bad game. One began to get the sinking feeling this would be one of those games the opponent's goalie is absolutely infallible.
Cam Talbot, for his part, made a number of great saves and had to stay sharp despite not seeing a lot of shots, including one on Taylor Hall right in front of the net late in the second period to keep it a one-goal game.
The one to finally break past this wall would turn out to be Matt Benning (obviously), who finally got his first NHL goal after a number of false alarms earlier in the season. His shot from the blueline at 1:33 trickled past Cory Schneider to even the score at 1-1, coming off an excellent, grinding shift by the Hendricks-Lander-Letestu line, and Lander quickly grabbed the puck for the memento. For a moment he grabbed the puck for what was deemed Matt Hendricks' 48th career goal, as credit for the goal briefly shifted to the veteran parked in front of the net, but eventually it was given back to Benning, who's really had to fight tooth and nail to get that elusive first NHL goal.
An excellent shift by the top line with five minutes left in regulation, with more than a minute of unrelenting, sustained pressure, epitomized the dominant puck possession of the Oilers throughout the night, outshooting the Devils 39-19 in regulation. The Devils were barely able to establish any sort of cycle game during even strength play, and the Oilers were stingy in allowing only one power play the whole night, but Schneider continued to stand tall for the home team and the game went to overtime.
The Oilers continued their unrelenting pressure, beginning overtime with over two minutes of sustained pressure in the Devils zone. Connor McDavid would draw a penalty with his blistering speed on a counterrush, and it was Mark “Patrik Laine" Letestu with the one-timer off the pass from Oscar Klefbom on the ensuing power play to beat Schneider with 1:01 left in overtime to snatch the much-deserved win for the Oilers.
The season started with the most precarious of good starts, as the Oilers raced out to a great record many believed would be unsustainable. Now 41 games into the season and sitting at 21-13-7, just one point from first place in the Pacific Division, this stellar performance marks a point in the season when belief should be allowed to blossom, despite all reflexes to the contrary honed by years of heartbreak. This team is good.
- Connor McDavid returned to saintly McJesus form after a mini-slump, absolutely electric on the ice with eight shots on net, drew the penalty that led to the game-winning goal, and assisted on it, as well. He and Draisaitl led the team in ice time with 23:31 and 23:33, respectively-- their maturity and continued emergence have made the Hall trade so much more palatable. His assist increased his lead atop the NHL scoring race to 46 points, three ahead of Evgeni Malkin. He also did a thing to save a goal, and no one knows how he did it but he did it.
- Oscar Klefbom was not content with the other Swedish defenseman getting all the attention tonight. He played like a man possessed, leading the team with NINE SHOTS, as well as the pass that led to the game-winning goal, and some great seeing-eye passes throughout the night for refreshingly clean zone entries. Let's just put it this way-- Klefbom, McDavid, and Lucic alone combined for the same number of shots the Devils managed all night. Made a great play to hold his ground against Taylor Hall in overtime, knocking him down on his tush and springing McDavid in the other end, which would draw the penalty that led to the game-winning goal he set up. He's had his ups and downs, but it's great to see him find his game again, and one can only hope he continues to develop his wicked shot.
- Jordan Eberle backchecked! I repeat, Jordan Eberle backchecked! The Eberle Backcheck (not an oxymoron!) broke up a dangerous-looking Devils rush in the third. Miracles happen.
- Anton Lander has looked great since returning from the AHL; his line with Letestu and Hendricks looks much more dangerous since his return, and his relentlessness on the puck along the boards was exceptional. Had an assist on the tying goal by Benning.
- Matt Benning is quickly becoming the surprise of the year for the Oilers and one of my favourite players. Steady on the puck, consistent night after night, rarely makes mistakes, with the potential to chip in offensively at all times, with eight points now on the season.
- I would like to appreciate Adam Larsson for a second. There was no need to make too much of his performance tonight, and he likely felt the same way, as he stuck to his game and delivered exactly what Chiarelli brought him over for-- steady defensive play with two hits, two shots on goal, one block, and a dominant 75.86% CF. There was another great moment when he gently manhandled Taylor Hall and took him down, then looked around with a guilty conscience but got away with it.
Due to my lack of attachment to Taylor Hall (or, rather, the pinecone), I think was one of the few people who didn't have an immediate impulse to puke when the Larsson-Hall trade happened. The resemblance to Kygo and penchant for plaid shirts was promising, but no one prepared me for how awesome it would be to have Adam Larsson as a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Edmonton is currently fifth in the league in hits, a big departure from recent years during which they have been around the bottom third of the league, and Larsson is a big reason for that, leading the team with 119 hits this season (ninth in the league)-- the sight of him slamming people against the boards and being so wonderfully hard to play against is very refreshing. His hilariously languid interview style and fondness for the word "fun" are just a few of the other qualities I admire about this guy, seemingly the opposite of his defensive partner and countryman Oscar Klefbom, whose overall demeanor resembles that of a future mayor of a small town in Sweden. The two have been impressive, and despite some growing pains, it's hard to imagine the blueline this year without the bruising presence of Adam Larsson.
The Bad/The Ugly
Is it scary that aside from the minor blemish of the Pouliot penalty, which is rather expected, there was nothing that bad? Please, let the Oilers optimist in me have this moment.
Game in a Haiku
Hall versus Larsson?
Who cares. Matt Benning
got a goal, but actually.