The Oilers seem to have a lot of opponents that have owned them over the years for no other reason than the wonderful randomness of tradition. I’m not one to believe in the witchcraft that would be necessary for the 1998 Dallas Stars and the 2012 Stars to both own us a generation apart. That has nothing to do with ‘style of play’ or ‘personnel’ or ‘superior energy drinks’ — that’s just a plain statistical oddity. I will, however, gladly accept the random reasons behind what drives the Oilers’ dominance over the Columbus Blue Jackets. If you recall, it was in a very similar type of game vs the Jackets where Dustin Penner really announced his 2009-10 breakout with ‘skyrockets in flight’. Hemsky has made the Jackets his personal batting cage for the last decade, so it is only fitting that he scored the game winner tonight with an effort that should have qualified the team for a playoff spot based purely on its true artistry. The final score ended 6-4, the kind of battle that used to be waged at Rexall cum Northlands with such frequency, and the kind of entertainment this self-hyped club has surely been starving for.
The Jackets won the Corsi battle 52-42 last night, taking two out of three periods by a similar margin while the Oilers just edged them in the 2nd. Between the 90 seconds or so between the Oilers go-ahead goal and the Jackets pulling Goalie Bob, the BJ’s racked up 4 Corsi events in succession, meaning the net balance of the third before desperation-time was about 14-12 instead of 18-12. It was a game that saw pretty terrible goaltending on both ends of the ice, though Bobbie Ovsky was allowed to fester in his own fail-filth while Khabibulin was pulled after the 4-3 goal early in the third period.
Which brings me to the most important criticism of the game — the question of why Khabibulin started this game at all. Yes, he played very, very well in a 3-0 shutout over a much better Blues club the other day. Yes, it’s the easy to decision to continue with the ‘hot hand’. But there is no question that over the last 3 years Devan Dubnyk has slowly but surely proven himself to be the better goaltender and assumed the mantle of starter. This isn’t a “win and play” platooning arrangement, this is a “play your backup only when absolutely necessary, perhaps when your starter is injured, or when you’ve got two games in two nights” kind of arrangement. To willfully play your inferior goaltender more than necessary is to give your team lower odds of obtaining points. Hell, the Oilers should have been elated that Khabi randomly played so damned well the other night and left it at that. To boot, you’ve likely lowered his trade value by giving teams a reasonable doubt about his true ability right before the deadline. It just makes so little sense on so many levels. Sure enough, Khabi let in 3 or 4 pretty terrible goals tonight, depending on how the War Room in Toronto views the disallowed stink bomb. Even one bad goal can sink a game for a team — it’s incredible that the Oilers were able to fight their way out of the hole left by 3 cheezy ones. The decision to start Khabibulin was lazy, misguided, and fell prey to another outdated coaching cliche. Hockey is not a magic cauldron, where a coach can rely on his gut to lotterize himself into earning more wins — it’s a game of efficiency and probabilities, where maximizing your chances of winning will bear more points over the long term. Krueger’s decision to start Khabi was a belief in the former point of view, and a simultaneous rejection of the latter.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a Corsi chart so stratified in the forward lines. The Gagner line had a wonderful night at even strength, with Hemsky, Gagner, and Paajarvi ending +7, +7, and +5 respectively. They lead the team in Corsi per minute, consistently pushing the play up ice at crucial times to stem Jacket pressure. Paajarvi’s goal was a picture of perfection, with all three members combining positively in a rugby-like sequence ending with Paajarvi crushing the ball down for an easy try. The Swedish-Finnish mutt also contributed positively to the tying 4th goal, making a nice rush into the zone, scaring off defenders, and setting up PowerPotterPlay up perfectly for a bomb-omb! from the point. And what else can you say about Hemsky? Half of the nicest goals in Oilers history that I can think of came off that man’s stick. He’s made all of our lives richer for having played on our team, giving us memories that we’ll never forget. It’s something that’s worth more than a second round pick.
On the flipside, the Horcoff line really had their problems last night. Horcoff almost set a season worst mark for raw Corsi tonight, ending -18, with 5 events for and 23 against. Think about that– he almost got quintupled at even strength possession. What’s hilarious is that one of those Corsis was another gobsmackingly beautiful tally, care of a Nail Yakupov setup that would have made The Great One tip his cap in appreciation. That’s not exaggeration, it was an astonishing pass to set Horcoff up for the easiest goal of his life. Otherwise, they simply could not muster any positive movement in this game, too many times getting hemmed in deep and not having any ability at all to fly the roost. I’ve advocated to play Hemsky with Horcoff in the past to provide at least one man who can skate a puck up ice. The results of this suggest they need help, badly.
The Jackets trio of Atkinson/Anisimov/Calvert chewed the Oilers’ faces off last night – especially killing the 3rd and 4th lines. Atkinson was +11 against Horcoff in less than 3 minutes of ice time. That is just an unbelievable rate of dominance. He was a combined +5 against RNH and Gagner in over 8 minutes of ice time, still good, but not as bad. To me, the conclusion is that a Horcoff line with Ryan Jones and/or Yakupov should not be considered an option against other teams’ best lines.
On the good side of the ledger, each member of Oilers’ top line was in the deep green against the RJ Umberger/Johansen/Collins trio in about 6 minutes of ice-time together. Apart from Taylor Hall getting benched at recess for a transgression as common as breathing air on this team (turnovers, apparently), that top line performed well again tonight, with all members ending above 50%.
It was a pretty gruesome game for the Smid/Petry pairing, with their only positive results coming with the Gagner line last night. I thought Justin Schultz had one of his better games in awhile even without getting on the scoresheet. It was his partner Nick that made a couple of really questionable decisions, most obviously his choice to make a truly unnecessary Fistric-like challenge at his defensive blueline that gave the Jackets what was essentially a three on one versus the green rookie Justin. I’m not sure what kind of coaching goes into decisions like that, but instructing your defencemen to be a bit more caution in making ‘last stand’ decisions like that in the face of greater attacking numbers seems to be a theme of this year’s defensive ineptitude. It’s time to fix it.
Last game’s report had a deep red square of fail in the bottom right corner — happily enough, it is now a deep green square of good for the Hemsky/Gagner/Paajarvi numbers.
I thought the 4th line had a non-insulting kind of game tonight, which is progress for the Oilers. What *is* insulting is Sportsnet’s choice to make Mike Brown the game’s third star on the strength of … … 5 hits? And a fight? You’ve got to be kidding me. Sam Gagner gets three points and doesn’t get a sniff? Paajarvi rag-dolls the Jackets at both ends of the ice and, donuts? Insanity: pure, unadulterated insanity.