Edmonton - Oct. 23, 2011 - With rumours floating about that the Edmonton Oilers were considering not dressing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins against the New York Rangers on Saturday night, both critics and fans were left scratching their heads. Coach Tom Renney decided to leave the rookie centre in the starting lineup and the kid rewarded him with another dazzling performance, leading Edmonton to a 2-0 victory over New York. Nugent-Hopkins scored his fifth goal of the season and added a helper which earned the youngster his second consecutive first star performance on Hockey Night In Canada.
The Oilers carried the play much of the night, out shooting the visitors 27 - 19, and rode some timely saves from veteran Nikolai Khabibulin to earn the win. The Russian netminder made 19 saves for the shutout and improved his record to 2-0-2 on the campaign, with a microscopic 0.72 GAA and a sparkling .968 SV%. Fans and critics alike, were ready to toss the 38 year-old goaltender out with yesterdays garbage but Khabibulin is showing he still has some gas left in the tank.
Edmonton opened the scoring midway through the second when Nugent-Hopkins converted a beautiful drop pass from Taylor Hall, on a an odd man rush, snapping a shot past Ranger goaltender Hendrik Lundqvist. The play began all the way back in the Oilers end when Jordan Eberle made a simple little chip pass to RNH who moved up to Hall and Edmonton were on their way in a blink of an eye. They stretched their lead to two goals just past the four minute mark, of the third period.
Former Ranger Corey Potter hammered a pass from Nugent-Hopkins past the Ranger netminder, for his first of the season, on the power play.
The game also marked the return of centre Sam Gagner to the Oilers lineup. While number 89 was thrilled to be back, after a high ankle sprain sidelined him to start the year, he had to adjust to playing a different position. With the emergence of Nugent-Hopkins and the strong two way play of both Shawn Horcoff and Eric Belanger, the club simply had no room for him down the middle. Gagner played right wing on a line with Belanger and left winger Magnus Paajarvi. Edmonton made room for the London, Ontario native by sitting Linus Omark for the second time this season.
I hate to tell you I told you so but the "Bulin Wall" is sure making me look like a genius. I have been saying since July that Khabby had something to prove this year and still had the ability to be a quality NHL goaltender. He looked cool and calm all night long in front of the Oiler cage and you just had that feeling that the Rangers would not get one by him. As good as he has been, I hope the coaching staff does not give in to the urge to run with him for a stretch. Devan Dubnyk has been solid to start the season and the plan still needs to remain playing both netminders regularly.
The Hall - Nugent-Hopkins - Eberle line were buzzing all night long and created a ton of chances. Taylor Hall was flying around the rink and Jordan Eberle chipped in with a couple of helpers. Eberle remains snake bit when it comes to finding the back of the net but he is finding other ways to contribute.
The penalty kill was solid killing all four Ranger power plays, including a lengthy 5-on-3. While Khabibulin was a big part of the PK, it was yeoman's work from both Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid that ensured they got the job done. Edmonton now sits 5th in the league with a penalty kill rating of 90.6%.
While Gagner had his ice time monitored, the 22 year old looked pretty good out there. Far from mid season form, he was solid enough in his debut. While Gagner did not look out of place on the wing, I can't see him staying there once Ales Hemsky returns to the lineup.
The fourth line played their best all round game of the season. While Lander and Petrell played their usual simple game, it was Ben Eager who stood out. Eager seemed much more involved from a physical stand point and his speed is starting to become an asset for the team. Now that he seems to have his legs under him, the guy can flat out fly and should be able to change the tide in games with his ability to forecheck.
The defence continues to impress. More often then not, they are making the simple decision and it is leading to far fewer mistakes from the blueline. It is no coincidence that the mistakes have been cut to next to nothing, since Theo Peckham was removed from the lineup. Like most people, I love what Peckham brings to the table but barring an injury, I can not see him getting back in anytime soon.
While Ryan Whitney is still trying to find his game, after going almost a full calender year between games, he was a turnover machine against the Rangers. There were three shifts during the game, that he gave up the puck at least three times in the Oilers end and only some timely saves from their goaltender kept those out of the net. You can see parts of his game starting to come around but he really needs to simplify things in the Oilers zone.
Andy Sutton has probably been the biggest surprise for me this season. He has been solid positionally and is not as slow as I thought he was heading into the campaign. That being said, that fight with the Brandon Prust was down right embarrassing. Sutton is a monster and the feisty Prust was easily the aggressor and the Oiler defenecman looked like he wanted no part of him. Sutton has always been a guy who picks his spots when it comes to dropping the mitts so one would think fighting a guy who is all of 5'11" would be right up his alley...apparently not.