NEW YORK 5
I want to thank Henrik Lundqvist, for he played a role in setting in motion the events that have led us to this wonderful night. I can't help but think that his laughing at the organization after barely having to show up for a shutout last year irked someone something fierce. Soon, the poison that was Dallas Eakins as Oilers Coach was gone. Things could begin again.
I also got to have a moment I really enjoyed - last year after an unimportant and lucky win at home while the team was mired in another joke of a season, I witnessed Craig MacTavish come down the catwalk. He was smiling like a smug idiot about the win. It was so annoying to see someone so obviously satisfied with himself after such a small victory. Tonight I saw Peter Chiarelli as I walked by the same spot. All business. I gave him props and went on my way. I'd much rather have a guy who doesn't have that smile in his repertoire (even when he might deserve to wear it) moving this team forward. The GM and the Coach know that the work isn't done until a banner is hanging in the rafters. That's huge.
What a night. Got there really early as directed to witness the Sather banner raising and a number of the best hockey players to wear the jersey honor a man who brought them all together. I thought people would be a little more into it honestly, and wish they would have had Slats talk for longer, but oh well. If you've followed my writing for any length of time, you know I have a deep admiration for Sather. The way he did things. His inventiveness. His attitude. The guy was everything to this organization in a way only #99 can surpass. I wish he'd never left and had been able to hold his squad together. I can only imagine the sad day when it dawned on him that he'd never have what he had again no matter how he tried. That has to be soul crushing on a professional and personal level - but he soldiered on. Had it not been for some unfortunate run-ins with the Oilers post-Pocklington owners we may have seen much more from the man, but with that said, what he has accomplished is truly amazing.
And then came the game - it did not start well. Usually taking an immediate penalty and putting a skilled team on the powerplay is a recipe for absolute disaster. That the Oilers were able to turn that around into a very productive period where they set the early tone of outshooting and out chancing the Rangers was exceptional. It is an indicator of what has happened through the course of this homestand and more broadly through this year. In all honesty I never once had a thought of them losing tonight. They were challenged more with the loss of Klefbom, but they had it in them.
The second period honestly wasn't much worse. The shots shifted a tiny bit and it happened that the Rangers were scoring. The Oilers had chances and Lundqvist held the Rangers in. Nothing in that period looked to be a fundamental breakdown that would carry over. I thought it was a shame they couldn't make it 4-3 before the end of the 2nd. But...
Then they come out first thing in the third and immediately take the lead. If you were doubting, this was honestly the time to cease. These are the things good teams do. Sure, they were pretty awful at times in the third. They got pinned down, tired and couldn't transport the puck. Teams know that you can take it behind the net against the Oilers and wear them down. That's the scouting report. The Rangers also have a big, fast, talented hockey team. I haven't seen Rick Nash play like that in YEARS. He was on fire and giving the Oilers all they could handle as a team. One day, a guy like Nurse will be able to saw-off with a guy like that, but we're not there yet.
So the game was tied again. Everyone was pretty aggravated with how it happened. But then there's a play on the boards...and another...and suddenly these guys wearing 29 and 4 are in with only one man back.
Done. Over. Finished. No damn chance.
That was inspiring. That was poetic. That FINALLY got a nervous Rexall to unabashedly cheer. There had been good moments during the game, but people can still feel that coldness...the losing...the fear seeping in at most games. We've all been trained not to trust. This group is showing us we may finally be able to let that go on home ice. Suddenly this is a very good home ice hockey club. I'll take that any day.
That Korpikoski got the last, and the way he did it - desperate but perfect - was so fitting. I always advocate that players practice full length empty net shots. When I took my hockey classes at the UofA, Eric Thurston always had us do this to begin and said he does it with his players as well. It is simple - but easy to practice and can make the difference. This is even more true when you're worn down and short a man like the Oilers were.
We all stood and cheered the last 20 seconds. The last of many standing ovations on the night. What you feel in the building isn't joy - yet. It is relief. It is the letting go of a weight and a shame we've all been carrying for so long. That is a damn hockey team down there on the ice.
I really wanted to mention a couple of the goals specifically:
On the first Rangers goal, both Oilers defencemen made horrible passes to no one that wound up on the Rangers point man's stick. These were always my favorite opportunities when I played. Such a gift. Everyone's out of position. You probably have a lane and a screen. Rip the bomb or make a slap pass. Easy to make things happen. You can't do that for the other team. Gryba and Klefbom should be ashamed of their efforts on that play.
On the third Oilers goal, Draisaitl made a little play that will get overlooked because Hall made such a nice read. Instead of rushing the zone because Hall was moving in fast, he made a little loop in the neutral zone that meant he had 4 Oilers in total rushing in. These are the subtleties in his game that are making the difference right now. He did that without letting any Rangers close off the play, or losing the flow of the attack. Just masterful.
- Certainly not his finest hour by any stretch. I don't think he necessarily played badly. There wasn't an obvious softy out there, but he also lacked some of the big saves he's made lately. He didn't control rebounds as well. Part of that was obvious breakdowns and blown coverages on behalf of those in front of him. The thing is, if he's just a little better they win this game in a runaway. The Rangers pushed, but they were not flying. They kept messing up passes to the point and really failed to keep the Oilers out of the middle of the ice. His team owed him one of these though, and they got it. He also took the cue to cover the puck more in the third when his team needed breaks and stops. That's one of the ways you know a goalie is in the game.
- Probably one of his strongest games. The Rangers goals he was on for didn't seem to be his fault. His passes and skating with the puck started a number of plays tonight including the game winner. He was all over the place, logged a ton of minutes and fought off the Rangers as the vet on a blue line that really pushed tonight. I actually want to give credit to the entire blue tonight. Even though they gave up 5, they were pushed hard with their most complete defenceman out as the Rangers pushed back with fury. They bent, and maybe broke a tiny bit, but did enough. That was a challenge tonight but they made it to the finish line.
- Looked like he struggled in the defensive zone tonight and had to rely on pure athleticism a little too much. Not a positionally strong game for Darnell. Great little read on his goal and even though he whiffed the shot a bit, it was the right shooting choice. Not all guys know how to sneak in and make themselves a target like that. I can't help but think Nurse's attitude helps on a night like this. He doesn't strike me as a guy who ever gets down and is plenty arrogant about his game (in the best possible way).
- Aside from that one ugly sequence I mention above, he was having a whale of a game. He was getting pucks through on a level I've never seen from him before. This is such a key for a two-way defenceman like Oscar. You could see the difference when he was gone. Some stepped up, while others weren't able to. I hope he's not out long as this squad needs him very badly.
- Ya know, in a shootout you think you'd notice a guy like Schultz but I really didn't. I suppose this means he didn't make too many mistakes but he's a guy who needs to contribute to the transition and PP if he's to be effective. His powerplay game has slumped to a point where he should actually be the second-last option only to Gryba. The guy just isn't making anything happen, and often makes weak passes that compromise the blue line. This isn't good. Not too bad defensively, but not great either.
- Honestly? Another weak game by my eye. He was getting beat wide a bunch and barely recovering. Didn't impose his will in the corners. Made a number of errors with the puck. I remember a good pinch in the third, but that's the only positive play I can think of. He needs to come out of the lineup, but unfortunately that can't happen now that Klefbom is hurt. He's not great, but he's nowhere near Ference bad.
- A quieter game from Davidson than usual. I'd really like to see him on the powerplay in a game like this. He needs more chances to fire that shot. Some physicality from him which is an added bonus. He struggled a bit like the others in terms of not breaking up the Rangers cycle game though. The Coach needs to work with these guys to alleviate that weakness to some extent.
- Whirlwind game for Tedward. Great little shot from the slot for a goal. Great quick play along the boards to set up another...and another. He was borderline TOUGH tonight. Think about that! BUT, he also blew some coverages and then takes one of the most utterly stupid "you're asking for it" penalties you will ever see. That is exactly what not to do late in a game when your team has a lead. Smart players on the other team will try to goad you into that penalty. I couldn't believe it was him that did it. And also, I'll say it, I would have benched him. No chance from an outsider's view that he sees the ice after that - BUT - the Coach knows the room. He made a call. It turned out. This is a good thing. I suppose without all of his up and downs, we don't wind up with this wonderful script. Hall and Draisaitl are flat out killers. I don't know how well they showed it at home, but after the 6th goal, they go to Hall on the bench and he's just locked on. He knew exactly what was going to happen when he hopped the boards the prior shift. That goal happened like it was nothing. Probably one of the best games I've seen Hall play. He won every single race to a corner puck. He won every single physical battle. He knocked guys around. He got open constantly. He passed like a wizard. The read to Purcell was perfect. The read to Nurse was even better, and after he'd already bounced a guy off to create space, moved into it, then got the puck and moved it seamlessly. What a freaking game he played. Leon? He's my favorite right now. The guy is making amazing players on the other team look horrible and his teammates like gods. That spin play on the boards to set up the two-on-one with Hall...amazing. Then he's marching in there and Raanta has no hope. Either he plays shot all the way and Hall's going to beat him because Draisaitl's going to pass it perfectly, or if he cheats even a touch we know Leon just roofs it before the guy can even think. That is the level he is playing at right now. Leon was outstanding in the corners and this line as a whole pushed the puck forward all night against formidable opposition. A huge hat tip to them.
- I'm conflicted with reference to these guys. I thought they played better than they looked...then I started thinking about the times they were trapped in their own zone. It happened too much. They can't be that weak at getting the puck out. Some of that was the D, but not all. Hopkins was too easily shut down tonight. Part of that is trying to be responsible as he's taking on some of the league's best lately, but you can also see that he's lacking confidence. I remember a play in the third where he was leading a rush down the right wing...and once he got the zone instead of going hard to the net or making a move he just kind of offered up a weak pass. That's not #93. He's struggling a bit in the offensive zone at the moment. Eberle and Khaira were pretty decent on the forecheck. I kept expecting them to score and it just never came. Luckily they didn't need to tonight. They did both struggle defensively though. Hopefully this was just a bit of an off game where they weren't matched up all that well. I'm not sure.
- What a night for the former Ranger. He kept it really simple and went to the net. Korpikoski isn't going to give you many amazing games and is rather streaky, but the one thing he seems to be able to do consistently is go to the net and make good if he gets a chance. It was great to see those go in for him and even greater for him to provide the icing on the cake. He played alright on the PK, but this line also appeared to me to be struggling to clear the zone against a heavy Rangers forecheck. Have you ever seen a better hockey player who's such a bad shooter as Letestu? He just never gets one away. Positionally, he was okay, but just okay. I didn't see too much from him to be honest except for on the powerplay a little bit. That unit does a very good job of going to the net quickly if they get possession. I thought Hendricks should be dropped off this line for Pakarinen. As the pace has picked up recently, Hendricks can't quite keep up and is missing pucks and checks because of it. That continued tonight. He was able to contribute an assist, but I can see plays passing him by. He needs to remedy that or be demoted to the fourth line.
- Pretty solid game for Gazdic I'd say. He struggled in the defensive zone (as many did) but also made a couple decent plays in the offensive zone and got in the faces of the Rangers. That's all he needs to do really. Pakarinen got away his one really good shot per game and it generated another goal. Love this guy as a depth player. Couple hits too. Lander? He had some defensive struggled and seemed out of step with his linemates. He's the clear leader at this point to find the pine when McDavid returns. That's really too bad - especially with his faceoff skills, but you can't cover up his lacklustre play. This is a guy with intelligence and some dynamic skill - I really wonder what's wrong.
So, the Oilers are FINALLY filtering pucks through shooting lanes to the net. Through the course of this home stand, they have gotten more and more aggressive at attacking the middle of the ice in the offensive zone. This has been and will always be the key for the type of offensive players the Oilers have. It is beautiful to see it in action. Wins will keep coming if this reality remains.
Loved how none of the Oilers took any crap at the faceoffs tonight. Every one either instigated or pushed back with the Rangers wingers. Sticks were in backs. Gloves were in faces. This is attitude and they need more of it.
Lastly, I just have to say, damn it is fun to care again some times. That was great.