We start off with a little western swing music as the 15th place Canadiens’ western swing continues in Edmonton on Thursday with a game against the 1th place Oilers.
In league-wide terms, the Habs are 28th overall and Edmonton is two points behind in 29th. So there’s a lot on the line…well, there really would be if this was, let’s say, the English Premier League and the bottom teams at season’s end were relegated to a lower league. Of course, since the bottom three get dumped from the EPL, both would be going anyway. But this is not the EPL and neither will be relegated, so never mind.
This is one of the few games on the NHL schedule these days that has zero playoff implications. The Habs are, no doubt, thinking about escaping the basement. They are now five points south of Carolina after the ‘Canes OT loss Wednesday night. For the Oilers, nine points ahead of Columbus and eight points behind Minnesota, they’re almost certainly not going to move up or down. They’ve lost three of their last four.
Still, players on both sides are playing for their jobs next season. For the young Oilers — hoping that down the road they can replicate what the Senators, if not the Blues, have done this season — it’s a chance to make an impression on management.
One Oiler who has already done that is Jordan Eberle, who scored his 30th goal of the season on Tuesday night in San Jose, just 10 seconds after the opening faceoff. His 30 goals ranks eighth in the league.
It’s not the NHL record for fastest goal; that’s five seconds (held by Doug Smail, Bryan Trottier and Alex Mogilny). It’s not even the Oiler’s record, which belongs to Wayne Gretzky at eight seconds. Still, it’s pretty impressive and so is Eberle, the smallish right winger who has 16 points in his last 17 games. Last season, he had 18 goals and 25 assists. He’s now at 30 and 33, better than a point a game.
Edmonton beat the Sharks in the post-game skills competition but they still struggle with consistency. The expectation after collecting so many talented forwards with high draft picks and a 9-3-2 start to the season was that the rebuilding Oilers were stepping up this year and contend for the playoffs. That didn’t happen.
“It’s pretty clear to me that people are a little impatient with the growth of this team,” coach Tom Renney said after the Sharks game. “I don’t think we were picked to win the Stanley Cup this year and that’s frustrating when you’re an avid fan. There’s no question everyone has an opinion on how we do our jobs and that’s fair game.”
Learning patience is part of the lessons involved in rebuilding a team.
Among the other young forwards, Taylor Hall has better numbers than last season — he’s gotten 49 points to date after 42 last year. First overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has had a good, but injury-plagued, rookie season. Sam Gagner, who had the big eight point night in February, has equaled his point total of last year already and turned his minus-17 rating from 2010-11 to a plus-five this year. But Magnus Paajarvi hasn’t produced after a promising rookie year and is now in the minors.
The established players on this team haven’t been able to provide the scoring needed. Ales Hemsky’s production is well below his best seasons, Ryan Smyth’s numbers are OK but not great, and Shawn Horcoff has never put up points commensorate with his big contract.
The Oilers suffered a number of injuries on the blueline this year and lost Andy Sutton twice to long suspensions. Lacking a good defensive defenseman, they made a move at the deadline to get Nick Schultz from the Wild in exchange for puck mover Tom Gilbert. Gilbert has become expendable with the emergence of Jeff Petry in that role this season.
The 24-year-old Petry, a former collegiate star at Michigan State and a second round pick in ’06, was in the minors earlier in the season, but after his recall in October has played with more confidence. Hes now regularly topping 20 minutes a game, being used against the opposition’s top forwards. He’s got a very good all-around game, a smooth skater, good passer and sees the ice well. He’s also got a hard shot and kills penalties. He’s worth watching.
Some of the veteran defenseman haven’t gotten the job done. Ryan Whitney is at minus-18 on the season in just 35 outings. Sutton was a healty scratch last game.
Former first rounder Devin Dubnyk has split the netminding with veteran Nikalai Khabibulin and both have had their ups and downs. Dubnyk had a good third period, OT and shootout against the Sharks so he’ll likely get the call against the Habs.
Here’s how the Oilers could line up on Thursday:
Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner, Jordan Eberle
Ryan Smyth, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ales Hemsky
Ben Eager, Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Jones
Lennart Petrell, Eric Belanger, Linus Omark
Ladislav Smid, Jeff Petry
Ryan Whitney, Corey Potter
Theo Peckham, Nick Schultz