The Oilers almost lost this game as the result of a play that I maintain NHL linesmen still get wrong a large percentage of the time. The icing with approximately half a minute to go should have been waived off as an intended pass. If you saw Taylor Hall's reaction and were wondering what exactly that was about, that's what was going on. Horrible missed call that could have been very bad for us.
At the start of tonight's game, the team looked quite fresh. Not perfect and not with a ton of crazy get-up-and-go, but very fresh, skating well and making solid decisions. It was interesting to see an Oilers squad start a game out this way because it seems to happen so rarely. Perhaps are players are vitamin D deficient and need to spend more time getting sun or an adequate supplementation (three-quarters joking of course).
Our biggest issue tonight was our defensive group. The forwards pushed the play and applied a decent amount of pressure on a Colorado defence that worked very hard this evening. Our goaltending was of course excellent. We had several long sequences stuck in our own zone and this was mostly due to defencemen not getting to the puck, getting there later than they should have and being out of position, or turning the puck over with very little fight. We need to make better decisions than that. Unacceptable.
Our powerplay showed some signs of practice (which is odd, because we had one, right?) and while certainly not perfect, it seemed to be effective. Some of the defencemen struggled on the point at times but not all.
I honestly thought this one was over when we got up 3-1, but a rather ugly goal turned this into a much tighter game very quickly. We got a little nervous and made some mistakes (including on the bench as our lines got all jumbled up unintentionally down the stretch, but we able to hold on.
Colorado has a really interesting team with a lot of talented players who have a knack for swooping to the middle of the offensive zone and making quick plays in that direction. You can see how their offence could strike quickly in this manner. They also have a ton of guys who can physically punish the other team, meaning they can wear you down. Where they might fall down is their attention to detail as they seem to get out of sorts now and again. Also, their goaltending leaves much to be desired.
The Oilers' first goal was a beauty play by Jordan Eberle, but began due to some excellent corner work by Cornet. Showing a decent amount of poise in his second ever NHL shift, he held the puck along the boards, fought off a Colorado defender and moved into the other corner before getting the puck to Gagner. Gagner went to Eberle who faked skating behind the net then wrapped in the near side and followed up after the first attempt hit pad.
Belanger's goal was certainly a surprise. While the puck movement by our second unit powerplay was certainly improved, you just don't expect #20 to hit his spot like he did. Jones and Smyth were both working in front of the net to create confusion, which certainly helped, but the key was Whitney's half-slap pass to Belanger that forced the Avs to respect the shot. #20 then went roof with that goofy snap shot of his.
Our third goal was a strong fundamental hockey play. Hall and Hemsky worked up the right wing with speed, #83 got himself a shooting lane while #4 headed for the slot, and a low shot off the far pad plus a rebound later the puck was in the net. perfectly done.
- Other than the second Avs goal, which was a product of not one but two UGLY rebounds, #40 was excellent. Come to think of it, he misplayed the first goal as well, thinking that he could get the puck to the boards and missing (which is why he reacted so angrily). He made a bunch of fine stops, especially with his glove hand and kept the Avs from scoring long enough for his team to get to 3-1. I mention the glove hand specifically because it is usually a point of weakness for him, but tonight he was capturing the puck nearly every time. Loved the aggressive poke check on the Avs breakaway chance.
- Cornet is an interesting study as a player in that he is young and isn't projecting to make a real impact, but he's done some interesting things in junior/the AHL and he could still become something. His biggest strength appears to be positioning, as he was almost always either open or moving toward the open ice. Also, unlike many AHL players that arrive in Edmonton, he was patient with the puck and generally made decent decisions. He needs to work on his passing, as he does not put enough on them to make connections in the NHL game. The biggest thing he is missing is a strong, fundamental set of skating tools. By this, I don't mean speed but the fundamentals of skating. The nice thing is that he should be able to improve these areas as power skating needs to be part of any developing pro's work and hitting the gym should put some muscle on his legs (he looked a little storkish out there). We could have something here in a couple years if he continues to develop. The instincts are there and that can go a LONG way if you're willing to work. Eberle had a generally strong game but seemed to let frustration seep in at times. He took a penalty not long after his stick had been slashed out of his hands and actually appeared to get benched for a shift. This is unusual for him, and I think this is what we'd actually call an off-night for #14. Thing is, his off-nights are damn solid. As for Gagner, I've marvelled at the strange fact that he above all other Oilers in the past number of years seems to take the longest to trust new players enough to pass them the puck. This trait was on display again tonight, as he often turned away from Cornet or made the less obvious play to another teammate. It is very weird and I don't know what about Sam's psychology causes this, but it has been true regardless of who seems to come up. #89 had strong and weak moments, showing some nice stickhandling work but also losing the puck a few times. He didn't beat anyone clean tonight, but certainly held his own.
- Really solid night for this trio and it was good to see them rewarded with a goal. They had a number of other chances (highlighted by Hemsky's dangle into the slot and then ripping a shot off the post) and seemed to be just off the mark on a number of occasions. Horcoff struggled a little in the offensive zone, including doing seemingly everything he could to miss a great chance in the slot in the second period, but was solid everywhere else. Hemsky and Hall managed the rush very well, continuing to show an ability to read off of each other at high speed. They struggled at times on the powerplay, but also looked very good at other times. If anything I'd like to see Hall go to his office at the side of the net a little more than he did tonight as Hemsky certainly knows how to get the puck to that area. I'd also like to see Horcoff cycle in on the left wing during the breakout so that they can use Hall's speed and Horcoff's own zone ability a little more effectively. These guys (Hall and Hemsky mainly, but also Horcoff at times) have been fighting the big battles for us lately and winning, which is making a huge difference. If you ask me to pinpoint a difference in Hemsky's game that indicates to me he's feeling healthier, look at his skating compared to a few weeks ago. You will see a full body skating stride right now, whereas before it appeared he was having to push with his legs exclusively. This is making a huge difference in his explosiveness and elusiveness. I suspect the ice will open up even more for these two once Hopkins and Gilbert return. (Hopkins for an additional threat on another line and Gilbert for the transition game)
- This was certainly Eric Belanger's best game in some time. The goal is one thing, but what I noticed most is that he was down low in his own zone making plays (including hits) to get the puck, then either making a pass or finding skating speed to get past the opposition. He skated past a number of Avalanche defenders tonight in a way we haven't seen from him much at all this year. I will never understand why the man apparently believes the wrist shot is the mark of Satan (seriously, he refuses to take one in even the most obvious of circumstances) and it certainly does cost him in the offensive zone, but less so tonight. Belanger's strong effort allowed Smyth and Jones to concentrate on playing a simple north-south game and generally this is when they're most effective. I didn't see anything spectacular out of either of them, but they did their jobs. All three of these guys played well on the PK.
- I loved the way #37 responded to multiple early big hits on him by the Avs...not only did he not back off the puck or the dirty areas of the ice, but he gave a couple hits right back and continued a strong effort. I liked his game a fair bit tonight and he was nearly rewarded with a goal. Speaking of nearly rewarded, Anton Lander burst into open ice and made a great move, only to be robbed by a combination of glove and post. He didn't have a lot of flash other than this, but tonight was generally a strong effort from him. Eager did a fair bit less than the other two, and I didn't have a good enough view of his penalty to see whether he was the victim of a sneaky defenceman's play (I know how to make that play to draw that penalty, it is a nice trick) or whether he just pulled a stupid, but he nearly took another one late in the game. I don't understand why he's not hitting more people as well; he's certainly getting the chances.
- As a pair, they struggled more than we are used to seeing due to what appeared to be some positional confusion. They got crossed up on a number of occasions and this led to scoring chances and turnovers. Potter especially didn't have a great game as he contributed to the offence in a minimal way and struggled with his checks at times. He made up for it with a key shot block and some sound physical play, but he can be better than this. As for Whitney, this is the first time this year I've seen him skate aggressively into the offensive zone, not be afraid to stay there, control the puck patiently and make deft passes such as the one to Belanger. If this Whitney is here to stay until the end of the year and gets a little bit of the hitting in his own zone back, it will be HUGE for this team showing progress.
- Aside from one extended stay in the offensive zone where he controlled the puck quite nicely, I didn't notice a lot from Smid tonight. I suspect this means he was doing his job defensively, but again I've seen him be better at moving the puck up to the forwards. It always amuses me when commentators say negative things about his puck moving ability; makes me think they don't watch games anymore as #5 is an excellent puck transporter. Petry had a very common game for him, some excellent passes and generally decent defence intermingled with some brain cramps.
- While the result was okay for these two, the process was at times ugly. Sutton missed more pucks that were within his reach than I can remember in any other game, and made a hideous pinch late in the third that could have cost the team. He also gave the puck away a number of times in his own zone due to either poor or lazy passing. It didn't really hurt us for some reason, but it certainly could have. It impacted us most in the transition game. Positionally, he was decent. Peckham had a mixed game in that he was more aggressive physically than usual and made a few good defensive stops, but he also got crossed up at times and had to chase his man rather than be ready for him.
Is this a team ready to rip off 30 in a row? Of course not, but it sure is better than the junk we've been seeing. We could get a real boost as we add Hopkins, Gilbert and to a lesser extent Barker back into the lineup, but only time will tell.