Edmonton - Nov. 9, 2011 - On the strength of yet another first star performance from netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, the Edmonton Oilers left the Bell Centre with two points, that they frankly had no business getting. That being said, good teams find ways to win games and that is exactly what Edmonton did, edging the Canadiens by a score of 3-1. The game also marked the return of Oilers forward Ales Hemsky, who has been sidelined since the second game of the season, with shoulder soreness.
Khabibulin managed to turn aside 28 of the 29 pucks that were fired his way, as he frustrated Montreal players at every turn. Time after time, the veteran goaltender stopped the Habs cold in their tracks with one big save after another. Montreal were given six power play opportunities, including a short two man advantage, but were unable to find a way to sneak one past the Russian puck stopper. Former Oiler Erik Cole led the charge upfront with five shots on goal but he was robbed point blank, on three separate occasions.
While Edmonton was killing off the first of four Montreal power plays in the middle stanza, Ryan Jones put the visitors in the lead by scoring the Oilers first short handed goal of the season. The hard working forward intercepted a poor breakout pass from Tomas Plekanec and had a clear cut breakaway from the red line in. He slid a nifty backhander between the pads of Carey Price to give the upstart Oilers the lead. The rest of the period was the Khabibulin show, as the Canadiens proceeded to out shoot the visitors by a 13-4 margin.
The theme remained the same early in third, as the Habs were given two more power plays but were still unable to solve the Edmonton puck stopper. The Oilers did manage to turn the tide midway through the third, on the strength of a tough forecheck and a strong cycle down low. The kid line, which was quiet most of the evening, had the Canadiens hemmed in their zone for a solid minute cycling the puck down low and while it didn't result in a goal, it was a pre-cursour of what was to follow.
The line of Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Ryan Smyth followed the youngsters impressive shift, with one of their own and it resulted in the Oilers going up by two. After a solid cycle behind the Montreal net from Hemsky and Smyth, the talented Czech forward circled up the boards and fed defenceman Tom Gilbert for a shot from the point, which deflected off the Canadiens Josh Gorges and past a startled Price. To the home sides credit, they continued coming hard and were rewarded with a break 22 seconds later, when Max Pacioretty's harmless looking backhand somehow found a way between the pads of stunned Khabibulin. That made it 2-1 was just over three minutes left in regulation but Montreal was unable to find the equalizer and Smyth sealed the deal with an empty netter at the 19:17 mark.
Edmonton have a day of before concluding their six game road trip with three games in four nights, against the Bruins, Red Wings and Blackhawks. Not exactly the easiest way to end a lengthy trip but don't put it past this team to find way to get the job done.
One can not say enough about the play of Khabibulin at the moment. Stats sometimes do not tell you the truth but anyone who has watched the veteran play this season knows is not the case. To this point, he has arguably been the best player, nevermind goalie, in the league. His stat line is almost becoming comical: 9 GP, 7-0-2, 0.98GAA, .964 SV%, 2 SO
Ales Hemsky looked good in his return and picked up an assist in just over 17 minutes of ice time. He still displayed his unwillingness to shoot the puck but also showed how much he was missed, despite the clubs torrid start. On the plus side, he took a couple of big hits and didn't seem any worse off for it...always a good sign when you are talking about Hemsky.
While Khabibulin made a few large saves while the club was short-handed, the penalty kill did not give up much. All three pairings upfront were solid on the kill and the defence pairings of Gilbert and Ladislav Smid along with Jeff Petry and Theo Peckham were simply outstanding all night long on the penalty kill.
Edmonton blocked another 12 shots on the night and sacrificed themselves all game long. Smid led the way again with three more blocks, which brings his total to a ridiculous 51 in fourteen games. That puts him on pace for 299 on the season...if he can withstand the punishment.
As a whole, the team lacked urgency in their game and because of it, they were continually turning the puck over in the neutral zone and lost most of the one on one battles. This has been far from the norm this season but this is the second game in a row that they have been outworked and that can't happen. Their compete level has to increase immediately or the last three games of this trip could get ugly.
The decision to sit Magnus Paajarvi doesn't sit well with me. The young Swede has struggled mightily this season but he has yet to be placed with players that suit his skill set and make it much more likely for him to succeed. If this club decides to keep Anton Lander up as the teams fourth line centre, I do not see where Paajarvi fits into the coaching staffs current lineup. I know where I would slot him but I am not the one making those decisions. Whatever the solution, it is something this coaching staff must figure out...and in a hurry.
Was expecting more out of the Nugent-Hopkins line against a smallish Montreal squad but to the Canadiens credit, they pounded the kids all night long and limited their space and time withe puck.The trio has a hit a wall of late, which isn't surprising, but all three of them are overhandling the puck at the moment. They need to simplify their games until the find that zone again. Some time apart 5-on-5 may be in order to shake things up and give the lineup better balance throughout.