Player grades: Oilers pull a McRabbit out of the hat, steal two points vs. Panthers
Panthers 3, Oilers 4* (SO)
For 59 minutes the Edmonton Oilers literally couldn’t get out of their own way. They trailed on the shot clock 28-16, and more importantly on the scoreboard, 3-2. The Panthers had led three times, the go-ahead goal having been an utter fluke that clanked off the sticks of two Oilers defenders. Fluke or no fluke, the argument could be (and was) made that the home team trailed on merit.
But in the dying seconds a couple of familiar heroes emerged for the Oil. First Leon Draisaitl came within an ace of tying it, robbed by a great glove save by James Reimer that was a near-identical twin of the stop Connor Hellebuyck made off Draisaitl in the dying seconds of the last game at Rogers Palace, a 4-3 loss to the Jets on New Year’s Eve. But this time the follow-up script had a happier ending: the puck came back to Draisaitl along the goal line, where he found Connor McDavid with a perfect feed that the phenom jammed home with 8 ticks on the clock to secure a much-needed point, and a 50% chance to earn another.
Come the overtime, the Oilers emerged from their cocoon, dominating possession and firing 6 shots on Reimer, basically the same as they mustered in each of the three 20-minute periods. They couldn’t solve him then, but they could in the shootout. First Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, then McDavid beat him, Cam Talbot outwaited two Florida snipers at the other end, and just like that the Oilers walked out of their own barn with two points for the first time in nearly a month.
But as for those first 59 minutes? Hoo boy. The Oilers struggled mightily to generate much of anything and had a few long stretches behind their own blueline.
Alas, the TV feed was even worse than that for many viewers, a near-seizure-inducing strobe effect that persisted for the entire Sportsnet broadcast. This observer was eventually able to find an Internet feed though I’ll freely admit that I was unable to give this game my usual level of scrutiny. But I did see enough to recognize it was a just a handful of players who willed the Oilers to victory in a game the rank-and-file didn’t get a lot done. Mind you, neither did the visitors in a game that by David Staples’ count saw just 5 Grade A scoring chances for the two teams combined through 59 minutes, before the Oilers erupted with 7 straight in the last 6 minutes of action. Weird game.
#4 Kris Russell, 7. Played 24 minutes on the Oilers top, and best, pairing. Had the best shot shares of any Oilers defender. While his partner was doing most of the offensive driving, Russell contributed several fine defensive stops on one-on-one battles against the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov. Took a penalty after one turnover. A well-earned +2 on the night.
#5 Kevin Gravel, 4. Oilers’ third pairing was used sparingly, and struggled mightily to get the puck moving north. Shot attempts of just 3 for, 11 against during his 12 even-strength minutes.
#6 Adam Larsson, 3. His game has gone south on him, and his luck has gone subterranean. Has been involved in no fewer than three own-goals in the last two games, just a horrible run of lousy puck luck. Just the one tonight, but it had to be seen — multiple times in super slo-mo — to be believed, as Caleb Jones clearing shot from about a foot away caught the shaft of Larsson’s stick and rocketed inside the post to put the Oil 3-2 down with just 6 minutes left. That put the cherry on top of a crap sundae for Larsson, who had his struggles defensively for much of the game (including some poor puck management on the second Panthers goal) and had a not-so-shiny dash-3 to prove it.
#16 Jujhar Khaira, 4. Showed a couple of flashes but nowhere near enough of them. Played 13 minutes during which he produced 0 “events” — shot attempts, hits, defensive stops — while spending most of that time in his own end. Shot attempts were +4/-11 and goals +0/-1 on his watch. Took a penalty for goalie interference on one of the rare times his group established possession in the o-zone, but later drew a penalty on a good rush. 4/10=40% on the dot.
#22 Tobias Rieder, 4. Finally mustered a shot on goal, and a decent one, in the last minute of overtime, surprisingly enough. But he was a non-factor for most of the game, unless you rate the defensive mistake he made on the first Florida goal. Shots on net were a miserable +3/-12 during his 12½ 5v5 minutes. Did his best work on the penalty kill.
#23 Ryan Spooner, 4. Marginal player in a marginal role. 0 shots. His best moments were on the defensive side of the puck (2 hits, 1 takeaway, 1 shot block). Played just 6:30 on the night.
#25 Darnell Nurse, 9. An absolute force all night, Nurse played a monstrous 31:49 in 38 shifts — both team highs for the season — leading the defence corps in TOi in all three disciplines… or all four, depending on your view of 3v3, of which he played 2:45. He also led the club with 12 shot attempts and 8 shots on goal (the entire forward corps mustered a measly 11), and his 4 hits and 2 blocks both led the way as well. Now consider that he scored the first Oilers goal, set up the second, and was involved in the build-up to the third, ending the night +3. All over the ice.
#27 Milan Lucic, 5. One decent chance early (I’m told), on a line with RNH and Puljujarvi which largely held its own. But his positional error was part of the issue on the second Florida goal. Later made a key shot block and zone clearance to allow several tired teammates a chance to change up.
#28 Kyle Brodziak, 4. Not a major factor. Played just 6 minutes at evens and another 1:25 on the PK where he did his best work. 4/7=57% in the faceoff circle.
#29 Leon Draisaitl, 8. Played a gigantic 28:34, second among forwards in the entire NHL all season … behind some guy named “Leon Draisaitl” who played 28:46 in the Oilers’ other 65-minute game this season. Had his legs moving and produced several zone entries off the rush. Drew two penalties, one of which was actually called. Another strong game on the dot (13/21=62%), with one of those wins earning him an assist on McDavid’s first goal. More critical was the apple he earned on the last-gasp goal, just a superb pass through traffic that found the friendliest of sticks on the edge of the blue paint. Had a wonderful overtime period, particularly one play where he started behind his own net, blasted by the high man to lead a rink-length 3-on-2 rush, then find McDavid with a lead pass for a chance that came within an ace of ending this one a bit earlier.
#33 Cam Talbot, 5. Faced a fair amount of rubber and zone pressure, but relatively few difficult shots. Beaten under the stick arm by Frank Vatrano’s outside shot, and punted out a greasy rebound that was eventually converted by Denis Malgin. No chance on the fluke. His best moments came in the shootout when he turned aside Huberdeau and Barkov to s(t)eal the win. Took a couple of shots right off the mask. 30 shots, 27 saves, .900 save percentage.
#39 Alex Chiasson, 7. A nifty behind the back pass to Nurse on the Oilers’ first goal, and a critical puck recovery and feed to Draisaitl on the crucial 3-3 tally. Nearly won it in OT with a change-of-pace one-timer of RNH’s rebound that nearly split poor James Reimer in half in his successful bid to keep it out. Played a massive 23:42 on a night Hitchcock rode his biggest horses hard.
#44 Zack Kassian, 4. Skated well but didn’t make a whole lot happen.
#45 Joseph Gambardella, incomplete. He left the game not by injury but by in-game coach’s decision, playing just 2:21, all of it in the opening frame.
#82 Caleb Jones, 4. Got caught napping on the first Panthers goal when he was burned by a stretch pass to the goal scorer. Desperately unlucky on the 3-2 tally. But Hitchcock continued to rely on him a ton, playing the kid 22:49 in all situations, including the critical 6-on-5 and over 2 minutes of the overtime period. Showed very good judgment and execution in o-zone pinches. Also made a fine stop of a Florida 2-on-1 when he stepped up on the puck carrier, Colton Sceviour, and disrupted the thrust.
#83 Matt Benning, 4. Back in the line-up on the third pairing, which spent much of the night in chase mode. Broke even on the all-important goal count at +0/-0.
#93 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 7. Like Draisaitl, spent some time at centre, some on the wing, and they even got a couple fo shifts with each other. Had the best flow-of-play stats on the club with +16/-10 in shot attempts during his time at 5v5. His 22:35 ranked just fourth among Oilers forwards but towered 7 minutes above #5 as Hitchcock relied on his Big Four. Had 6 shot attempts to lead the forwards. Was also the unlikely leader among Oilers forwards in hits, with 3, and in faceoff percentage at 8/10=80%. Made a glorious backhand saucer pass to McDavid that the phenom tried to finish with a between-the-legs move, but it just missed. RNH was terrific in overtime, taking the puck hard to the net a couple of different times. Scored the “game-deciding goal” in the shootout, not that you’ll find it in his boxcars.
#97 Connor McDavid, 8. Had one of those nights Wayne Gretzky used to have occasionally, where this observer was thinking “he wasn’t quite on top of his game, passes not quite clicking, trouble penetrating, yada yada” but then a look at the summary shows “assist, goal, goal” and ultimately a massively positive factor in the win. A big reason he had tough sledding was an impressive showing by Florida’s outstanding pivot Aleksander Barkov who was in 97’s grill for much of the game, yet somehow he was able to get past that and put 2-1-3, +2 on the board. Just the 2 shots in regulation, both goals, and 1 more in overtime that nearly put it away. Was involved in 7 of Edmonton’s 9 Grade A scoring chances, ’nuff said. Added the Hit of the Game™ when he crunched fellow OHL Exceptional Player cum NHL First Overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad. Oh yeah, added the shootout snipe that all but sealed the win.
#98 Jesse Puljujarvi, 5. Solid defensively, didn’t generate a lot. Took a nasty though comical-looking tumble when he toe-picked and crashed into the boards, fortunately was not hurt. Perhaps the play that summarized his game was when he had a chance to slip a quick backhand pass through to Draisaitl steaming up the middle, but took an extra split second to try to make the play on his forehand and got checked. Attackers need to be that split-second quicker to succeed in this league, and J.P. is still a work in progress in this respect.
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Author: Bruce McCurdy, Cult of Hockey