I sat down last night to write this post at almost 3am after a long night of fun and celebrating. I honestly don't think I could have gone to sleep before then, as in some ways the smile from that game is still carrying me today. It was an incredible game and something I really didn't expect or see coming any time soon. I had really low expectations going into this one and was of course blown away.
There was a really cool moment in the third...while everyone was caught up in the moment and chanting "We Want TEN!", I had a flashback...we were playing Buffalo in January of 2009 and getting waxed...when Buffalo got to 9, a similar chant went up as a jeer and very sad cry about how our team was doing at the time. It's been a long long road since the summer of 2006, but I suspect the moments like last night, where the shoe is on the other foot and we're the crowd giving its team a standing ovation during almost the entire last minute of the game, will become more frequent as we go along. There was also a time when the Hawks waxed us in a very similar fashion to what happened last night and to give them a bit of their own back was very satisfying. I imagine the Hawks must be thinking it is about 1986 and Alberta is a crappy, crappy place to go for two games.
While there were a couple bad goals allowed by Chicago tonight, so much of the difference between a game like last night and the Ottawa game comes in the little races and puck wins along with making sure you take a properly placed shot. We won so many little races or reaches for the puck it was unbelievable. We outskated the Hawks all night long, which is not an easy thing to do. Instead of squandering early chances, we put the puck where it needed to go. We chose proper skating lines and made a ton of tape-to-tape passes. I think the most important thing we did though was that the forwards to a man all came back fairly deep into their own end all night long. They knew the defence were going to be in tough, short-staffed and facing a strong opponent. They knew that the past few games had seen a lot of struggles in terms of getting the puck moving. They also seemed to know that their only chance at winning this was going to be to score a lot of goals and either run away with it or trade goal for goal and come out ahead at the very end in a high scoring affair. Thankfully for all of our blood pressures, the second scenario never came to be.
I have to give a decent amount of credit tonight to Tom Renney and his line combinations up front. Though it appeared they were only drawn up the day prior to the game, it became clear immediately that the Hawks would have to deal with three fairly effective lines. Lately we'd been down to only two of those lines and that was killing us on nights when one of them wasn't going. The combination of Lander, Jones and Horcoff certainly didn't run around making a bunch of things happen offensively, they were able to control the puck, play smart positional hockey and generate some rushes. I imagine this line came into being because of Lander's strong game the other night, and it changed the matchups pretty drastically for us. While this line could handle some defensive responsibility, the Hawks had no answer for either 94-93-14 or 4-89-83. When these lines were re-combined for powerplays in more familiar combinations from this season, nothing much changed. There was a flow to just about all the combinations last night.
I hope everyone got to enjoy that game last night. If you didn't, find someone who PVR'ed it. I already know that LMHF#2 did and I'll be heading over there sometime soon to watch it again. Being there was pretty special. There was an atmosphere in the building that is unique to a Saturday game against a historic team that also happens to be very good right now; and one that has had to deal with a lot of disappointment lately. It received a heavy dose of joy, fun and craziness last night. Our boys also didn't let up. Early on, the goals fired them up and the referees made them angry. After that they were all over both the Hawks and the refs for the rest of the evening. There was an intensity that I haven't seen in a long, long time and it was great to watch.
- Well, I think the rust is off for Ales. As soon as you saw him skating with true authority through multiple Chicago defenders, dodging a well-positioned hit and driving to the net with no option but to score, you knew he had returned. That goal was big. Converting the first chance of a game really sets a tone; and when it is done in that way by one of the less-hyped players (let's face it, Chicago's whiteboard was probably all 93, 4, 14 and possibly a little 94) meant that Chicago had to be ready for multiple sources of offence on the night. Even though most of what Hall generated subsequently was driven by the PP and the other kids/Horcoff, I enjoyed watching Hall and Hemsky play because of their ability to use the "climb the ladder" strategy to advance up the ice with strong lateral movement. If Hall can learn to pass and touch pass in the same way Hemsky does, these two will be silly good together. Even already, they play in convenient position when relevant to each other. If Hall's driving, Hemsky's high up and open for the pass. If Hemsky's working his way up the RW as is his trademark, Hall swoops into the slot. When Hemsky gets the puck at his blue, there's Hall on a streak down the LW. I could go on. It was beautiful, fast, ruthless hockey. Hemsky was strong, though not perfect the rest of the game. He made a whack of solid passes and mainly found his comfort zone with the puck. Hall got locked in the zone very early in this one. You could see it on his face; when he scored his first two goals he barely even seemed to smile. He was on a mission in this one and wouldn't be denied. People think Hall is a rush scorer...he isn't. Not a wide rush scorer anyway. Guys like Hemsky do that. Hall is at his best when he uses his speed to be positionally strong and create offensive levels that the other team has to deal with. Hall's office is right beside the net where he scored two of his goals tonight. That's another reason that Hemsky playing with him works well. He's got such and excellent wrister when standing still and needs to specifically set it up more. His third goal was a thing of beauty. He was still locked in and motivated, steamed into the O-zone and delayed just long enough that he could go perfectly through the D's legs and shelf on Emery. Just outstanding and what a way to net a hat trick. Later he got sent in on a rush and nearly scored (I couldn't tell if Hemsky whacked the puck after Emery went down or not) and we were robbed of our 10th goal by an official who didn't realize Hall was just taking a mini-break beside the net after barreling into it head-fist. Apparently the stripes don't realize they're dealing with Gumby. That also robbed Ales of a multi-point game, which is really crummy. When it comes to Sam I'm somewhat conflicted. He clearly did not have a very good game in terms of what he did with the puck. There were a lot of iffy passes and the shots he took weren't particularly good. Both Hall and Hemsky started feeding him the puck to try and give him a chance to get something going and get a point or two but there was nothing doing. I liked how he moved through the neutral zone with speed, but he couldn't make anyone miss and couldn't take an elite-level shot. It has become clear that Gagner is at least 1-2 steps below our top level talents in terms of being able to create and force offence upon the other team. The thing is, he did clearly do a decent job of supporting what was a strong line. I'd give him a chance for a couple more games, but it will be important to watch closely in terms of what he's actually accomplishing.
- Two of the best games I've seen Oilers forwards play live from two of the players on this line last night. It was incredible. I remain adamant that Eberle should have been a star, and quite possibly first star because he made a ton of things happen early. The play he made to hold off the Chicago defenders, turn the corner and hit Smyth with the slickest of little passes was utterly sublime. It also seemingly came out of nowhere. The guy just makes things happen. Then he and Hopkins started making music...and it was over. The thing about the all-kid line is that much of the time Eberle gets overshadowed in Hall's attempts to rush and Hopkins deferral to #4. #14 plays the game at about the same speed as Hopkins, and in the same amazingly smart way. Not only was the finish on Eberle's goal an absolutely perfect shot, it was generated by a brilliant skate past the opposition and no-look pass by Hopkins, which was generated by some lovely transition play in the neutral zone. It was like watching a couple of race horses get loose and just GO. Then they combined for the 5-on-3 Gilbert goal with their behind the net play. I pitied the Chicago defence at that stage. Teams are going to have to put that on video and attempt to break it down, because it's brilliant. With Hall heading to the front of the net, and Whitney as a better shooting option once he gets back, that 5-on-3 will be SCARY. They can cut out front, hit a defenceman, or hit Hall in the slot. So long as they keep drawing penalties (and their skill says they will), this is going to be a challenge for the rest of the league. Lost in much of the euphoria was another strong game from Smyth. He played more of the support role that I spoke about in terms of Gagner, but did it at a higher level with very few mistakes. He was in his office for his goal and generally supported either offensively or defensively for the rest of the game. You could see he was having fun. As for Hopkins, what can you say really. He's a superstar. Every single time he got the puck he made something happen. Opposing players cannot adjust to him. Even in games where the other kids are shut down, he always makes something happen. In games like last night, he notches 5 assists (and had one taken away apparently or it would have been 6) and makes it look easy. He just gets around people and generates speed out of nothing like on his rush to set up Eberle. His passes are flat and perfect. There was a sequence in the third where the Oilers were going for their 10th and Eberle, Hall and Hopkins all got going...I kept yelling for Hopkins not to score because he needs assists...at that point he was 2 from the NHL record in a single game held by some guy who wore #99 whose jersey was hanging in the rafters a ways above where the play was going on. Thing is, #99 wasn't exactly subjected to video review of his assists. I suspect in 1980 the stat line would have read that #93 had 7 a's last night. That we're talking about a preposterously young and far from his peak #1 center doing these things is utterly amazing. Apparently he also has a flair for the dramatic and likes to show up huge for HNIC...no complaints here!
- I didn't know what to expect when I saw these guys lined up for the opening draw. I could see the appeal because if they're effective it frees the offensive guys to attack secondary lines all night long. I lost track of exactly who was matching who once the score went crazy, but I'm assuming these guys got some heavy defensive responsibility early on. Horcoff was huge in this game, keeping up with the kids on the PP and managing a goal of his own as the result of some hard work and solid positioning. He's really transitioning into an effective leader of this particular squad of guys. I've never had any problem with him being elevated to that status because he's always been one of the Oilers that even when his game wasn't very good, he said the right things and had the right attitude. In games like tonight, it's good to see that he can keep up with the offensive guys in some ways. He again, is playing a supporter role in a lot of ways, but doing it very well. He and Smyth are primary on the PK, where they are pretty much always good. Jones scored an ugly, ugly goal but I was more impressed by the fact that he did it right after taking a stick or something to the face on the shift before. He was back and driving again. Also, if you're going to put the puck on net, he did a good job of picking at least a tricky spot. In a game full of that much offensive flare, Jones' head down and skate approach doesn't exactly grab headlines, but he was positionally good enough and giving enough effort that things are fine. Lander was probably the most quiet of the guys on this line, but that was okay too. He was in the right spots, minding his check and keeping his game simple. It is quite hard to believe that he seems to have just quickly snuck by several players into a position of responsibility, but his pedigree is certainly showing in that he, even when given responsibility, doesn't seem to play bad games really.
- Honestly they didn't do much at all aside from one strong shift where they could have scored. Magnus got a strong push to try and get him some offence, but as I'm sure has been pointed out by many, all he was able to do was skate down the wing quickly. He was not back to making strong defensive stops or drawing penalties really, and thus just wasn't very effective. He needs to figure out that he needs to stop or cut laterally on some of those rushes if he ever wants to score there. I still think one of the problems for Magnus is that his stick is too long and he's not able to make quick lateral plays with it. So long as he's stuck in straight up and down mode, he'll be stuck not scoring. I could definitely take or leave Eager at this point. He avoided hits on several occasions last night and there's no excuse for that when the rest of the squad is playing such an intense game. I didn't exactly expect to have to question whether he'd play an enthusiastic game. Belanger didn't have a responsibility for much of anything last night and as such I didn't really notice him much. I'm not worried about his lack of offence to be honest, because to me he looks like the kind of guy that will go on a real streak at some point.
- As has been the case this season, they were our best defensive pairing even with the stats as they wound up. Gilbert made some excellent reads and was getting his shot through including his goal and the assist on Hall's second period goal. I honestly didn't see much from the defencemen last night as this game was largely about the forwards...which is amazing to say when Gilbert goes out and gets four points. Smid let Gilbert play his game, which seems to be his job pretty much every night now. Somehow in all the excitement and goal scoring, and despite Smid's strong puck moving, he was once again blanked on the board. Talk about crummy. Between the two of these guys they killed 14 minutes worth of penalties...wow.
- What a night on the stats board from these two. It wasn't totally benign either...Theo was finally physical and moved the puck with a lot more care and attention than he has of late. When he plays like that he's useful, but early on he was still having a decent amount of difficulty. Jeff Petry showed how well he can move the puck to his forwards in a game where the forwards were getting into proper starting position. Pretty exceptional. What I hope really comes from this is that the confidence builds quickly for both of these guys.
- These guys had about the game I was expecting. #33 hit some people and was not quite as good as his previous appearance (likely due to the rush of arrival and the pairing) but held his own okay. I've been generally impressed with most of his efforts. Chorney was okay, but wasn't really able to contribute offensively. Hemsky found him twice with perfect chances to make something happen in the second period and both times he couldn't make it work. You're not going to get much better feeds as an offensive defenceman. He needs to deliver on those.
- I thought he was decent. Chicago didn't really get a ton of great chances even though they threw a lot of shots our way. The first Chicago goal is one he certainly would have had a couple weeks ago. Our goalie situation could still be a problem yet, but I think we've found the strategic way we're supposed to attempt this winning thing. Khabibulin's job then becomes to be Fuhr and just stop one more than the next guy. I know that's easier said than done, but we appear to be able to run & gun.
Sorry for the lateness guys, it's been a long couple days but because of the nature of the game, I still felt it was important to get written. What a game. Seriously, if you didn't get to see it, go find it. What a night. Here's to many more!