Edmonton - December 16, 2011 - The Edmonton Oilers were excited with the prospects of having Taylor Hall and Corey Potter returning to their lineup for Thursday nights game. Unfortunately for the Oilers, goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin remained on the bench as a spectator. Backup Devan Dubnyk was solid early on but allowed a couple of back breaking goals in the third period, which resulted in yet another loss for the struggling Oilers. This time by a score of 4-2, to a tired Phoenix Coyotes team.
One would think the Oilers would have come out like gang busters after having four days and playing a Phoenix team that played last night. Outside of Hall and Dubnyk, they came out flat and the Coyotes took control of the game from the drop of the puck. Lauri Korpikoski opened the scoring with just under five minutes to play in the first but if not for the stellar play of the Oiler netminder, Edmonton could have easily been down 3-0 after one.
Though they continued to play poorly in the second, the Oilers managed to even things up when Hall scored his eighth of the season on the power play, just past the sixteen minute mark. After pinning the home side in their zone, Edmonton moved the puck beautifully from side to side until Hall was freed up for a goal mouth tap in. Just like that they were on even terms and the game was there for the taking. Instead the Coyotes took it to the Oilers during the final four minutes of the second and restored their lead. Radim Vrbata scored with thirty seven seconds left in the middle stanza and in a blink of an eye, it was 2-1 for Desert Dogs. Edmonton had been out shot 29-13, out hustled and out played thru forty minutes but still had the game in reach thanks to the play of their goaltender. Unfortunately for them, it was Dubnyk's turn to disappoint in the third.
Taylor Hall scored his second power play goal of the night, at the 6:11 mark to knot things up at two and you could feel the momentum starting to shift. The game was sitting there for the Oilers to take a stranglehold of, instead it would be the Coyotes who would respond.
After both Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle failed to clear the puck from the their zone, Edmonton native Shane Doan made them pay when he notched his eight of the season with just over eight minutes to go. Phoenix had done very little to the point in the period but managed to bury their opportunity to restore that one goal lead. There was still plenty of time for the Oilers to mount a comeback but that all changed when a harmless wrister from Oliver Ekman-Larsson eluded Dubnyk with just over five minutes to play.
The talented defenceman simply threw the puck towards the Edmonton goal, from the side boards, before getting crushed by Theo Peckham. To everyone's amazement, the puck somehow found a way to sneak past the Oiler goaltender. Devan was asleep at the switch and that goal ended all hope of any sort of comeback from the visitors.
Edmonton have now lost four of their past five games and things could get much worse before they get better.. The club is off to San Jose to take on the Sharks Saturday night and then return home for games against the Detroit Red Wings and the league leading Minnesota Wild, before taking a few days off for Christmas.
Devan Dubnyk was outstanding during the first and kept Edmonton in a game that they had no business being in. They came out as flat as a pancake but Dubnyk was up for the challenge. Devan stopped thirteen of the fourteen shots thrown at his way and he looked very much like the goaltender that wore his # 40 jersey during the month of October.
Taylor Hall was the best Oiler player in his first game back and it was by a very wide margin. He played just over eighteen and a half minutes and was flying around the ice from the moment he hit the ice. Hall looked very much like the player Edmonton fans became accustomed to watching last season. You noticed him every time he was on and for one of the few times this season, Taylor wasn't continually knocked onto his behind. It had become a regular occurrence this year but that all seemed to change tonight. Hall seemed to be in complete control and was not forcing the issue, as he has for much of the season.
While he did not make the splash Hall did in his return, Corey Potter was solid in his first game back. He played just under eighteen minutes on the night and while he was -2, his presence on the power play alone was a sight for sore eyes. It will take the blueliner a few games to get his game back up to the level it was at but tonight was a great first step.
The power play looked like the power play did before Taylor Hall left and not surprisingly, they went two for three with the man advantage. Teams can no longer focus solely on Nugent-Hopkins with Hall out there and their first goal of the night was a thing of beauty.It went back to having Shawn Horcoff not touching the puck much but being a presence in front of the oppositions net and it worked to perfection.
As good as Dubnyk was in the first, he was equally as bad in the final twenty minutes. He let in an iffy goal to allow the Coyotes to go ahead 3-2 and then let in an absolutely awful one to make it 4-2. This has been the problem Devan has had for much of the season. He has been inconsistent and that trend continued last night. Every goalie lets in a softie from time to time but Dubnyk has the habit of letting them in at the worst possible time. His play continues to slip after a very good start to the season in October but if Khabibulin is healthy, he will not see much time. Ha had been given the opportunity to start three of the last four games and he's lost them all.
The team's energy level was missing in action all night long, which is very concerning. They were coming off a four day break and a game in which, they had once again come out flat in. This team is staring to resemble the Oilers from the last two years of the MacTavish era and the year Pat Quinn coached them. Those teams always came out flat and seemed to be lacking emotion. That being said, if the organization just sits around and does nothing about it, it won't change.
While Sam Gagner was great last Friday against the Avalanche, last night was the second game in a row that he was invisible. When playing with RNH and Eberle, that simply can't happen. With this team struggling as much as it is, they can't afford to leave him on that line and hope the trio start to click.
Ales Hemsky was a little better at times last night but again seemed disengaged for much of the game. I had wrote a piece just over three weeks ago about this organization having to make a decision on Hemsky and that was when it looked as though he might have started to find his game. Instead, his lack luster play has arguably gotten worse and now that decision needs to be made in a hurry. While I don't see Ales as the type of guy who would poison a dress room with a bad attitude, he is clearly going thru the motions and that is not the example you want one of your skilled veteran players to be setting. While he's struggling with his game it seems like accepting his role as this teams fourth or five option is something Hemsky can't get his head around. Fair enough but then the decision has been made for the club and they should be looking to move the asset. Waiting to move Hemsky later in the season won't get Edmonton a better return but it will keep this team from moving forward in its development process.
Last night that the coaching staff reverted back to their ways of not playing the kids as much as they should. Nugent-Hopkins played just over sixteen minutes and Eberle played fifteen while the clubs supposed third line played as much or more. Smyth almost played nineteen minutes and Belanger and Jones saw the ice as much as Eberle. Not sure why they continue going down this road but it is a trend that simply doesn't go away. Even Taylor Hall, who was the best Oiler by a mile,only played 18:38 on the night. Not a bad number but if your team has a chance to win a game that they have little right to be in, go with your horses and see if they can pull it out. Nothing against Eric Belanger but putting his line out when this team needs two goals in the final five minutes, can't be sending a good message. His line was decent on the night but they've created nothing all season long so why have them out there? In my mind, doing that is the equivalent of throwing the kids out on the penalty kill when they need a big stop. Every player has to have a role on a team and this coaching staff has still been unable to decide what players should be playing in what roles and you would think at this stage of the game, they would have a clue.