Edmonton - December 10, 2011 - The Edmonton Oilers were trying to close out what has been a disappointing home stand on a positive note. Coming off their worst effort of the season against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Oilers managed to turn things around with an impressive 4-1 victory over the visiting Colorado Avalanche. Sam Gagner continued his strong play of late, with a three point night and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins chipped in with two helpers, in leading Edmonton to their second win of the season against the Avalanche.
The Oilers came out flat as a pancake against the Canes on Wednesday but that wasn't the case last night. Both teams came out fast, generating chances and an early power play opportunity for each side. Colorado had opportunities on the man advantage but were unable to beat Oilers starting netminder, Nikolai Khabibulin. Unfortunately for the visitors, the home side wasted little time in opening the scoring, on their chance.
Gagner created a turnover in the Avs end by out muscling the much bigger Shane O'Brien off the puck and then drove to the net knocking his own rebound past Colorado starter, Semyon Varlamov. Gagner was making his debut on the clubs top line with Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle and # 89 did not disappoint.
Edmonton would go up by a pair before the period was out, when the much maligned Ben Eager knocked in his second in as many nights. Like Gagner, Eager was bumped up the depth chart for the game and was playing on the third line, alongside Eric Belanger and Ryan Jones. The trio managed to create a turnover late in the frame, when Ryan Jones knocked down Varlamov's clearing attempt and hit a streaking Belanger, who found Eager in front of the Avalanche goal. The rugged winger, managed to force the puck past the Avs netminder and gave the Oilers a 2-0, with only thirty-seven seconds left in the opening stanza.
Colorado came out hard to start the second and were rewarded with a lucky bounce, to cut the Oilers lead in half. Daniel Winnik's initial shot missed the Edmonton goal but Jay McClement was the recipient of a perfect bounce off the end boards and managed to sneak a quick shot past Khabibulin. Defencman Colten Teubert was late getting to McClement and just like that, the Avalanche were back in it...or so it seemed.
Seven minutes later, the Oilers would restore their two goal lead when Eberle scored his eleventh of the season, this time on the power play. The Regina native buried a gorgeous cross ice feed from Nugent-Hopkins, that was sent through Sam Gagner's legs and directly onto Eberle's blade. It was pure magic and a treat for all in attendance to witness. The Oilers star rookie was jumping all night and was far too much for Colorado to handle.
The Oilers stretched their lead to three, when Gagner scored his second of the night on a two-on-one break with RNH. Eberle managed to knock the puck free along the boards in the Oilers end and onto the stick of Nugent-Hopkins. The kid pulled away from the pack, came in on the odd man rush and sent a beautiful saucer pass to Gagner, who proceeded to rip his second of the night into the yawning cage with less then three seconds left in the period. Edmonton led 4-1 after forty minutes and that's how this one finished up.
The Oilers are off to Calgary, to face the Flames for the second consecutive Saturday night and will be looking to avenge last weeks 5-3 defeat at Rexall Place. Edmonton will then have a four day break before heading back out on the road, for a quick two game road trip against the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks. A trip in which the club is hoping to see the return of star forward Taylor Hall.
Gagner sure made the most of his opportunity. Given the chance to play on the clubs top line, he seemed to have instant chemistry with both Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins. It's nice to see Sam rebound after a tough start to the season but now that he has found his game and is playing with highly skilled players, the sky may be the limit. Gagner is showing a hunger and drive in his game that was never present during his first four seasons in the league and he is becoming a handful for the opposition to deal with.
The play of Nugent-Hopkins is getting to the point of being almost comical. The kid looks better with each passing game and it's scary to think what he might do, once he is comfortable. He played just under twenty minutes on the night and was seeing double duty on the Oilers power play. The kid is a special player and that pass on the Eberle goal was one that only one other player would have had the balls to try...and that guy wore the # 99 on his back.
Full marks to the coaching staff for having RNH out on both power play units. I personally would have loved to have seen this happen earlier in the year but never in my wildest dreams did I think they would go for it. Kudos to Tom Renney and his staff for finally recognizing that a change needed to be made to the power play and to step outside of the box and double shift the youngster. It's the easiest way to get him more ice time and in a situation he excels at.
I didn't mention Khabibulin much in the post game summary but the man was his usual wall like self. He made several key saves on the night but none bigger then his two shot save off the stick of Daniel Winnik on a breakaway. That would have made it 3-2 and given all the momentum to the Avalanche but the Russain netminder shut the door. He tracked the puck well all game long and his rebound control was excellent. I had mentioned in my game day preview that it wouldn't surprise me to see Khabibulin start both games of the back-to-back and coach Renney hinted after the game, that was what he was leaning towards. This team needs great goaltending to compete and at the moment, the man who wears the #35, is the only one who seems capable of doing it on a nightly basis.
Ben Eager had another strong effort manged to fire five shots on goal, while throwing a couple of hits. He was much more engaged from the get-go and seemed to relish the opportunity of playing on the third line with Jones and Belanger. While he still only played just over eight minutes, he was involved in the play whenever he was on the ice and could have easily had another goal or two on the night.
After playing the fourth line all of one minute in the first, the coaching staff went out of their way to find the trio ice time in the final forty minutes. They actually played more then the third line did five-on-five and had some quality shifts. You would think that they would add Darcy Hordichuk back into the mix against the Flames but after last nights performance, I wouldn't be to sure.
The fact that these guys have made at least five god awful line changes in the last handful of games, is concerning. The aforementioned Daniel Winnik breakaway was nearly a three on nothing because Edmonton's change was that bad. Their line changes have cost them crucial goals in the last two games and if not for their goaltenders heroics, last night would have been three in a row. I get that they are young team and that mistakes will happen but this is getting ridiculous. To be honest, the ones usually making the bad line changes have been the veteran players. They need to clean this up, before it costs them even more points in the standings.
My preference would be for the Oilers to remove Ryan Smyth off the penalty kill but he remains anchored with Shawn Horcoff on the PK. If you were to remove the 2:07 of penalty kill time that Smyth played, it would leave him with ice time of 17:28. Which is in the neighbourhood of where he must be, if they want him to be successful all season long. On a positive note, they did seem to use the Belanger-Jones pair as their first option but on the downside, Lennart Petrell saw all of one minute on the kill.