Edmonton - December 23, 2011 - The Edmonton Oilers were given an early Christmas present on Thursday night, when they had the good fortune of taking on a team that has been struggling even more then they have. Typically a match up against the Minnesota Wild is not a good situation for this team to breakout of slump but last night was a different story. Earlier this season, Edmonton broke their seventeen game losing streak against the Wild in Minnesota and yesterday they managed to defeat their division rivals one more time, this time by a score of 4-1. Jordan Eberle continued his torrid pace, picking up two more goals and Ryan Smyth scored his first in twelve games. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin was solid, making 30 saves in earning his eleventh victory of the season.
Minnesota came into last night's game, losers of their previous five and have recently been hit hard by the injury bug. The Wild are not the deepest of teams to begin with but with their best player Mikko Koivu out of the lineup and forwards Devin Setoguchi and Guillaume Latendresse also out due to injury, Minnesota's forward group looked more like an AHL roster then an NHL lineup. To Edmonton's credit, they came out hard and absolutely dominated the first thirty minutes and were rewarded with a 4-0 lead.
The Oilers out shot the Wild 20-3 in the first period and if not for goaltender Niklas Backstrom, this one could have been out of hand early. That being said, Edmonton still managed to beat the Finnish netminder twice in the opening stanza. Red hot Jordan Eberle opened the scoring at 15:57 mark, when he intercepted Clayton Stoner's clearing pass and made an absolutely sick toe drag move around Nick Schultz and snapped a bullet past Backstrom, to give the Oilers the lead. The goal was the talented wingers fourteenth of the season and sixth on the man advantage.
Less then three minutes later, Ryan Smyth finally lit the lamp after going eleven games without finding the back of the oppositions net. In typical Smyth fashion, the veteran winger stuffed a quick wrap around past Backstrom, before the Wild netminder could slam his pad up against the post.
They could have made it a three goal lead, when Taylor Hall was awarded a penalty shot with twelve seconds left in the period but the Minnesota goaltender stoned the Oiler forward, to keep the score 2-0 after one. Hall seemed to have have nothing left in the tank after a lengthy but productive shift.
The visitors started the second on the power play after Ben Eager was assessed a boarding penalty at the end of the first. While Minnesota had the man advantage, it was the Oilers that generated the best scoring opportunity and they were rewarded with their fourth shot handed goal of the season. Lennart Petrell picked up a lose puck in the Wild end and ripped a shot under the bar and past Backstrom, for his third on the campaign. Just like that, the lead was now three.
Less then two minutes later, Eberle made a quick deke that froze the Wild netminder and allowed the winger to deposit his second of the night into the yawning Minnesota cage. That made it 4-0 for the Oilers on the score sheet and 22-3 on the shot clock.
To the Wild's credit, they picked their game up and made Nikolai Khabibulin earn his pay cheque the rest of the way. The Edmonton goaltender made a number of quality stops in tight, the best being an all out robbery of pest Cal Clutterbuck, early in the third period. Minnesota had two lengthy power plays over the final twenty minutes but the visitors were unable to beat the Russain netminder.
Sam Gagner took a high-sticking double minor late in the second and just after killing off the Gagner penalty, Petrell was assessed a five minute major and a game misconduct, for shoving defenceman Marek Zidlicky into the end boards. It was an ugly play and Petrell may find himself sitting on the sidelines for a game or two because of it. While the feisty wingers intent was not to send Zidlicky head first into the boards, the play was still a dangerous one and the referee's made the right call. Regardless of the intent, the responsibility on that play is on Petrell and he made a bad decision.
Edmonton manged to kill off the five minute power play but Dany Heatley scored just seconds after, to break Khabibulin's shutout bid. That was the only puck the visitors could slip past the Oilers puck stopper, despite coming back to even the shot clock to thirty-one aside at the final buzzer.
The win sends Edmonton into their brief Christmas break on a winning note and with the World Junior Championships starting up on December 26th, the Oilers are headed out on their longest road trip of the season. The team will start the trip against the Canucks on Boxing Day and will then be off to face the Wild, Islanders, Hawks, Sabres, Blues and Stars. They will play all seven games in thirteen days and then have three days off before returning to Rexall Place on January 11th, when they take on the New Jerey Devils.
- The kid line was buzzing the first half of the game and there was little the Wild could do about it. They seemed to be moving the puck at will and while Eberle beat Backstrom twice, if not for the Wild netminder, that line could have had a huge night. That being said, I would think they are more then happy with two goals and a victory.
Jordan Eberle is simply on fire and is taking that step towards becoming one of the best finishers in the NHL. One could argue that the kid has the best hands in league in tight and his release is second to none. Add to that, the sick toe drags he manages to pull off on a nightly basis and he has already become a handful for NHL defencemen and goaltenders to deal with.
- The Wild were clearly not at full strength but that is typically a recipe for disaster for this team. Oiler teams always find a way to play down to the level of their opponent and it is a big reason why they have finished last in the league, the past two seasons. It's a good sign that they were able to take a game by the throat, on home ice against a lesser opponent and get the job done.
- The second line of Hemsky - Horcoff - Smyth was very good against the Wings on Monday but were not rewarded on the score sheet. With Hemsky out of the lineup due to illness, Sam Gagner stepped into the second line right wing role and didn't miss a beat. The line did hit the score sheet on this night when Smyth broke out of his scoring slump and while they didn't dominate like the kids, they were solid all night long.
- Ben Eager played one of his best games of the season. He was skating hard from the drop of the puck and was physically engaged all night. He even manged to take a cheap boarding call at the end of the first, which isn't a bad thing at all. If Eager is into it, the Oilers will be more then ok with having to kill the odd penalty because of it. After Hall took a Jeff Petry shift off the leg and missed a shift, it was Eager who got to see some time up on the top line and it seemed to energize him even more.
- While Nikolai Khabibulin did not have to stand on his head, he made some very big saves to keep a hard charging Minnesota team from making this one interesting. Edmonton's play flat lined over the final thirty minutes but that is not uncommon when a team has a four goal lead and a pending Christmas break almost here. The veteran did his job and ensured that Minnesota would not get back into the game.
Only downside to the night, was that Ales Hemsky missed the contest due to illness. This could have been the perfect medicine for Hemsky to kick start his game. The talented winger is pointless in six and I have little doubt that streak would've come to an end against the Wild. Unfortunately for both Hemsky and the club, it was an opportunity missed but there is nothing that can be done about it now. Hopefully, Ales is feeling better by Monday and is refocused and ready to go against the Canucks. If the Oilers are to stay in the playoff race, they are going to have to have a good road trip and in order for that to occur, Hemsky is going to have to be a huge part of it.