I think to some extent we all live for glimpses of human greatness. I know I do. So often these moments are shown to us through athletic competition as it is simply the appropriate stage and opportunity. My dad witness Wayne score 5 against the Flyers to hit 50 in 39 and I sure wish I'd been alive to see that. I get choked up every time I watch a video of Secretariat at the Belmont (even though that was also equine greatness) and it would have been amazing to see that. Tonight, a fortunate few of us were able to experience a truly exceptional and great performance by a 22-year-old athlete. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen in my life live. It wasn't in the playoffs and it didn't break entirely new ground, but to watch a young athlete take flight in such an awe-inspiring way is something else.
Here's the thing about tonight; very few of these were iffy plays. The things Sam did as part of the EIGHT points he put up were great little plays on their own and that he made all of these plays in one night rather than over the course of a couple weeks says something. He commented during the post game interviews that it is important not to set limits on yourself and that is a fantastic way of putting it. Golfers often encounter something like this when shooting an exceptionally low score...you just stay focused and keep playing rather than worry about how well you are doing. That's what #89 did tonight.
You could see the focus and the fire from the very beginning of this one. It is worth noting that Sam and the rest of his teammates didn't even get on the scoreboard until the second period. He put up 8 points in under 2 periods. He, Hall and Eberle put up SIXTEEN in under two periods. That is simply astounding. Once Gagner got going, there was absolutely no stopping him. Most guys take their foot off the gas at some point but he didn't for one second. After his goals his face had the look of sheer determination, and he just kept driving to the open areas, making plays and knowing that so long as he touched the puck, good things would happen. Let's go through the goals:
Hall from Gagner
- Hall spots open ice in the neutral zone and a teammate headed for an open puck so he drives the Hawks D back. Even if he doesn't get the pass, he's forced them out of position and his teammates should be able to take advantage. Gagner delivers a picture perfect pass that Hall somehow receives onside. Hall protects the puck, then absorbs the push from the Hawks defender and in fact uses it to change the angle on his shot which beats Crawford. We were stunned when this puck went in. It looked like there was no chance to score from there.
Gagner from Eberle and Sutton
- Sutton makes a stretch pass to Eberle who makes a beautiful spinning play to receive the puck, remain onside and feed Gagner who is driving through an open lane. Seeing he has Smyth in front alone, Gagner tries to pass through the Hawk defender (a correct decision) and is unfortunate (or so it seemed) to have the pass blocked. Instead of skating past the play or whacking at the puck, Gagner gains control, stays with it and whips around the net for a wraparound. Smyth meanwhile has himself parked in the crease and holds off one Hawks defender by strongly planting his foot in the ice, then Crawford gets stuck as well and the puck is in the net. Gagner wanted this one bad and wouldn't be denied. Great play by Smyth that goes unrewarded.
Whitney from Gagner
- By this time the Oilers powerplay had started to move the puck around the Hawks' zone with impunity. Despite some mistakes on the break-in and a couple unfortunate bounces, they looked phenomenal. This backed the Hawks pk box off of its earlier position which was taking away the high game and keeping the Oilers from being effective. Now that they'd established a flow, the Hawks backed off and when Gagner drove the middle and the puck squirted to Whitney, they had to respect the pass (which Gagner gave an option for on the far side of the ice) and let Whitney rip into one that got by a heavily screened Crawford. Beauty decision, beauty shooting lane and a great example of why puck control on the powerplay to make the opponent respect your space is so important.
Gagner from Whitney and Eberle
- At this point you sort of knew something special was happening. The Oilers had been controlling the puck again and Whitney managed to get a puck towards the net that missed. Seeing this, a lurking Sam Gagner drove towards the rebound like a man possessed and finished what was an open net but far from an easy shot as he was in tight and on the wrong wing to be scoring such a goal. Again, after he'd gotten this goal, the fire in his eyes was just amazing to see, you knew he had more.
Barker from Sutton and Gagner
- While #89 didn't have as much to do with this one, it might have been the most important goal of the whole night. Sutton had pinched in to create some offensive and made a great little read coming up the wall to get the puck to Barker, who then took probably the hardest one-knee snapshot from the blue line I've ever seen and nailed the top shelf. What an effing shot. No doubt Crawford should have made a better effort, but wow. You had to see that thing live. It was on his stick then it was in the net before you could even think. Looked way better live than on TV for whatever reason.
Gagner from Hall and Potter
- This was probably Sam's nicest goal of the night. Hall took a pass and drove wide into the offensive zone as Sam cut across the zone at an angle and into an open lane. Instead of an empty drive at the net, Hall somehow knew where Gagner would be, looped and hit him with a perfect pass. Two Hawks were on him at the time. Two Hawks were in the vicinity of Gagner. It didn't matter. He had no discernable advantage on the goalie other than that he was moving with speed. It didn't matter. He just put that puck where there was no chance a goalie could stop it. It appeared there was so much confidence running through him at that point that there was no way that puck wasn't going in the net. At this point the building erupted and got pretty emotional. People who never say anything were screaming about what #89 was doing.
Gagner from Eberle and Hall
- In the top class of any play you'll see anyone make in this league. Once again this trio came over the blue line with an absolute ton of speed and Taylor Hall, who may have discovered his calling as a rush-passer at the NHL level, looped slightly and found Jordan Eberle at the side of the net. With speed and precision, Eberle calmed the puck down, suggested subtly that a shot was coming, and found Gagner with an open net staring him straight in the face. On so many nights, Gagner has this chance and doesn't do anything or scores an ugly one...not tonight. BAM it was in the back of the net and he had 7. The screaming continued. Some of us looked at the clock and realized that he still had time left. Others realized he'd done all of this in less than 2 periods. It was simply mind-boggling.
Eberle from Gagner and Hall
- Over the line again with speed. The Hawks back up, Taylor Hall swerves and makes another great play. Sam Gagner, having just scored number four and point number seven, has the puck on his stick in a shooting area with Ray Emery pleading for mercy. There would be none. With everyone in the building (except LMHF#2 who at this point is screaming PASS IT TO EBERLE!!!) thinking that Sam will shoot for #5 (including most importantly Ray Emery who has totally sold out to the shot), Eberle slips into shooting position and the still completely locked in #89 puts a perfect pass onto his stick to set up the goal. Again, you won't see it done any finer than that. WOW.
It was an interesting game tonight coming in for so many reasons before any of the spectacle which took place actually happened. The Hawks had "vowed revenge" or something (though I seem to remember the same thing before the last game we played against them) and yet I had a good feeling about this one heading in. We'd played reasonably well lately, and for whatever reason this team seems to play better with Cam Barker in the lineup. I still don't get it myself and should he stay healthy I'm going to try to watch specifically for the rest of the season what exactly he does (because often it isn't pretty, like falling on your butt to create a breakaway not pretty as it happened tonight) but for whatever reason he's been effective.
I'm going to give credit to Tom Renney tonight in a big way. He saw the Hawks were winning the matchup battle in the first and made the adjustment to have the veterans (94-10-83) take on Toews and Sharp while turning the younger set loose to do their thing. The game changed almost completely after this decision. Aside from a couple iffy goals against and a bad break on the PP, they had the Hawks top guys locked up decently well and got some timely saves when they didn't.
On a night like tonight teammates often get caught up in what their exceptional teammate is doing. There were some strong efforts made in the offensive zone and on the PP especially by many others and they simply didn't have the magic touch that Gagner did tonight. They all wanted it just as bad though, and were so happy for Sam when he got it. Smyth and Hemsky especially gave him the biggest kudos/glovetoface at the end of the game and were clearly so happy for a guy they've spent a lot of time alongside. That's great to see.
The Hawks aren't used to having a team that can skate with and past them. We are, even in our current damaged state, that team. We carried so much speed through the neutral zone that the Devils and Wings at the height of the trap era wouldn't have had a hope. As the puck got moving north-south, we simply sprinted away with it and stretched the game. Once we're in on you, you're dead. We often have trouble getting there, but tonight we certainly didn't.
I don't know how the Hawks must feel after this one. Part of me simply thinks they'd have to laugh. It is truly incomprehensible that they've had 17 goals hung on them in Rexall Place this year. Perhaps the Oilers are in their heads...or perhaps the Hawks are just ahead of the curve in a very negative sort of way.
- I've already gone through most of their play above, and save for noting that Sam and Jordan each probably could have had another goal or two (Sam had absolutely nothing going for him on a play in the third and still got away one of the best backhands you will see only to hit Emery in the face, and Eberle got absolutely robbed twice including on a great backhand) I'll pretty much leave it at that. What I'm most interested in is determining what we actually saw here tonight. Did we simply see the performance of a lifetime or a really fun sequence of occurences? Or did we witness a guy who has been languishing for a couple years remember that he's only 22 and that he came to this league to be an offensive force? Did we see Sam Gagner remember the player that he is and take flight before our eyes in a rocket-fire blaze of magnificence that will propel him to the heights of an outstanding career over the coming seasons? The fire in his eyes tonight would seem to suggest that he knew he could do this and was finally out there doing it. Combined with two of the finest young talents ever to wear an Oilers uniform who were themselves having an excellent night displaying that talents we've come to know from them, Sam Gagner may have changed the course of his career and the course of a team in some ways tonight. What a show. What a show.
- Let's not forget the contribution of these guys tonight. Renney gave them a job and they did it. Smyth and Horcoff also did some great work in front of the net on the powerplay and Hemsky contributed to a lot of the puck control that gave others room to work. They were not perfect, but they helped to win this hockey game by giving the kids the room to play.
- These guys too put in some solid support efforts. The fourth line especially had some great chances and before it became obvious that Sam Gagner touching the puck was the only way to get a goal tonight, I was sure they'd get one too. Loved the intensity of Lander and Petrell. Jones came close to scoring a couple times and had a stronger effort than lately. Belanger actually took some wrist shots and looked dangerous a couple times before hurting what appeared to be his ankle. Cornet still couldn't get any passes from his teammates, and I'm guessing that will be his last hurrah for this season...but what a fun night it must have been to be part of.
- Seriously, he falls down and causes a breakaway, blows his coverages, gives away the puck a few times...then scores a goal, moves the puck successfully up the ice a bunch of times and steadies the back line just enough to make a clear positive difference? I don't get it. The stats guys hate this guy, a lot of fans don't like him and I'm inclined to think he's playing so far below his potential but it is starting to seem like he's some sort of freakish "just-gets-it-done" guy. It is weird!!
- Really solid forays into the offensive zone. If we have a roster issue coming up and don't want to send Peckham down, dress 7 D and play him some shifts at forward, he'll probably score goals. Decent enough D from him tonight as well.
- Stuck in the game after being hurt and did enough good things to get out alive. He made a couple more mistakes than usual tonight but I'm going to chalk that up to Chicago's talent level.
- He was firing bombs on the powerplay and moving the puck around very well. He did make a couple mistakes, but nothing lethal. On the Chicago SH 2-on-1 (I believe it was he that was back?) he needed to take the shooter as he's committed to that shot too early and Potter should have read that. Always be aggressive on 2-on-1's like that as a defender.
- Really nice game from #6. He did many things right and especially so at the opposition blue line. The goal was just gravy...great heavy shot.
- Made some nice passes and skated a little bit with it but also got caught out of position. Needs to stay disciplined.
- I'm torn. There were times he was Fuhr-esque, but allowing that Mayers goal and that final Chicago goal where he once again forgot how to catch a puck properly are pretty unforgivable and meant his defensive players had to walk a tight rope. I hope he's turned a corner and that the problems won't get worse next game, but we've seen this movie before. Still...43 saves and a lot of the kick-save or other highlight variety...so well done in getting the win.
My hands are still swollen from the clapping, cheering and high-fives.
I truly hope that every Oilers fan gets the chance to experience something like that live in their lifetime. That is why we keep going. That is why I keep capturing games so that there will be a memory down the road. That is why they play the game. That was truly amazing to see and I feel so fortunate to have been there tonight. I hope this rather epic post conveys even just a little bit of the feeling in that building tonight. We're all dedicated to this thing and to be through what we have and then have nights like this is so very special. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
More thoughts to come I'm sure. What a night.