Oilers Answer the Bell With Season on the Line

Sam Gagner (Bridgetds/Flickr)

It may be the defining moment of the Edmonton Oilers’ season.

On Sunday, November 24th, head coach Pat Quinn held a closed door meeting with his veteran players. The timing of the meeting was as obvious as its intent. With the Oilers sinking fast in the Western Conference standings and the threat of an impending 5 game road trip offering little cause for optimism, the Oilers head coach put the question to his team leaders, “how do we turn this thing around?”

Whether Quinn used language that direct is as debatable as the player’s specific responses. What is known is both sides emerged from the 90 minute conclave confirming they’d cleared the air and were ready to move forward in a positive direction.

The early returns were not encouraging.

The team lost 3 of it’s next 4 including a heartbreaking loss at home to San Jose when Patrick Marleau scored a shorthanded goal to tie with less than two minutes remaining in regulation time. Things went from bad to worse when star netminder Nikolai Khabibulin came up lame with a bad back, the goaltending duties falling to second string Jeff Deslauriers, an unproven prospect who’d looked shaky at best in his rare starts for the Oil. At this point, the Oilers were officially in freefall, 2nd last in the Western Conference and tied for dead last in the league for most even strength goals against. Pundits throughout Oiler Nation (myself included) were calling for the team to blow it up and start over again, first and foremost by positioning themselves for a lottery pick in next year’s draft. To add fuel to the fire, the team then lost its top playmaker, Ales Hemsky, to season ending shoulder surgery.

As December began in Edmonton, the snow was falling, the mercury plummeting, and the Oilers were embarking on a 5 game road swing, a trip that was viewed as a death march to the Western Conference cellar with the team having won only 2 games on the road to that point.

And then, with their backs against the proverbial wall, the Oilers came out swinging.

Five straight road games resulted in five straight wins, the final being the most dramatic as the Oilers’ overcame a 3-nil deficit with a 4 goal third period explosion to down the St. Louis Blues. In the process, Quinn’s young charges set a team record: becoming the first Oiler squad in team history to win every game on a 5 game road swing. To be fair, the Oilers of the Gretzky era won 9 straight road games during the 86-87 season interrupted by a 4 game homestand, so this record comes with an asterisk. But don’t tell that to the Oilers! This is a newly confident bunch, convinced they’ve turned the corner, and most importantly, firmly of the belief that more wins are coming.

“If this hadn’t been a good trip, it could have meant the season,” said captain Ethan Moreau. “We have a real balanced attack right now, our goaltending has been solid … Everything is falling into place. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t continue. It’s not like we’re getting lucky. We’re playing really well.”

So, how did the Oilers do it? And what exactly was said in that meeting?

Stabilized Lineup Key to Newfound Success

The Oilers remain tight lipped on the specifics of that discussion, but if actions taken on the ice are any indication, ‘stability’ was a key topic in the conversation. Riddled with injuries and struggling to score throughout November, Quinn responded to the team’s woes in typical head coach fashion: changing his forward lines frequently in a desperate bid to achieve some semblance of offensive consistency. The results were as mixed as the lines and the players were clearly frustrated, many of them struggling to find chemistry in the ever evolving lineup. Following the closed door meeting and Hemsky’s injury, Quinn finally settled on his 4 forward lines, each of them featuring Quinn’s stated strategy of pairing skill with sandpaper.

The top line has been the most impressive with the small and shifty Sam Gagner centering the newly dominant Dustin Penner and the rapidly emerging Gilbert Brule. Penners’ comeback is well documented, his consistent excellence this season putting him in contention for late consideration for Team Canada, and now Gagner and Brule are paying dividends too, rewarding the patience shown by the Oiler brass with two talented but often inconsistent prospects.

The second line features two players: Center Shawn Horcoff and Right Winger Patrick O’Sullivan who struggled mightily prior to the team’s road trip turnaround. Now paired with the team’s leading hitter, the hulking J.F. Jacques, the line has emerged as a solid two-way unit capable of shutting down the opposition’s top unit or contributing on the scoresheet with a timely goal, particularly on the shootout where Horcoff and O’Sullivan consistently get the call as one of Quinn’s first three shooters.

The third line features the ideal combination of speed, grit and finish with Center Ryan Potulny centering the veteran Ethan Moreau on the left side and fleet flanker Andrew Cogliano on the right. Moreau is the rough and ready corner-man with Cogliano, the NHL’s fastest skater, the wide threat. What makes the line tick is Potulny, an emerging scoring threat with a quick one-timer. A career minor leaguer with natural goal scoring ability, Potulny is finally getting his shot in the big league and looks to build on his strong play to date with a solid second half to the season. The only drawback is Cogliano’s disappointing lack of production on the scoresheet, making him a potential candidate for the pressbox when Mike Comrie returns to the team following his current bout with mononucleosis.

Rounding out the offensive attack is the team’s ‘energy line’ of Zack Stortini, Ryan Stone and Robert Nilsson. Stortini and Stone are lunch-pail players, each capable of a Gordie Howe trick as evidenced by Stortini’s recent 1G, 1A, 1 FIGHT performance against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nilsson is the unexpected surprise of the unit and possibly of the entire team. A previous mainstay in Coach Quinn’s doghouse, labeled as a skilled but soft player content to stay on the perimeter, Nilsson has returned to the lineup as a player committed to making a difference. His great vision and shifty passes have added a much needed jolt of skill to the team’s fourth line. His nifty dekes and laser shot have greatly bolstered the team’s powerplay and shootout production. Nilsson is, in essense a microcosm of the entire Oilers’ offense, a talented but maddenly inconsistent forward who has suddenly found his form on the team’s recent road swing.

On the defensive side, the team’s resurgence is led by the surprising play of sophomore goaltender Jeff Deslauriers. Taking over for the injured Nikolai Khabibulin, Deslauriers has improved the level of his play with each successive outing. Most importantly, the young tender has demonstrated the resilience and mental toughness critical to the success of a first string netminder. Following a total collapse against the Vancouver Canucks, wherein Deslaurier gave up 4 goals on 11 shots in a mere 8:25, Quinn went right back to the young goalie against the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings and Deslaurier responded with a 27 save, ‘Second Star’ performance. His strong play continued throughout the road trip, with two shootout wins testifying to Deslaurier’s mettle under pressure, and his improved rebound control contributing mightily to the team’s growing confidence in their young netminder.

In front of Deslauriers, Quinn’s difficult decision to relegate the veteran Steve Staios to the third pairing with Jason Strudwick has proven to be a much needed remedy for an aging player struggling with his defensive zone coverage. Staios’ former partner Sheldon Souray is now paired with the slick but soft Tom Gilbert as the Oilers’ second defensive pairing and Quinn uses the pair wisely, icing the pair in matchups that optimize their offensive skillset while minimizing their exposure to the other team’s top line. That assignment is drawn by the Oil’s top pairing of Lubomir Visnovsky and Ladislav Smid. Enjoying a breakout season with the Oilers, the 6’3 226 pound Smid is establishing himself as a tough and reliable rearguard, the perfect compliment to the offensively dazzling but diminuitive Visnovsky.

Prior to the road trip, Quinn’s defensive tinkering extended to the team’s powerplay where Tom Gilbert moved to the top pairing on the point alongside Visnovsky, moving Souray to the 2nd team powerplay unit. In hindsight, the move makes absolute sense. Souray and Visnovsky both possess a blistering shot from the point, but there’s only 1 puck between them. By separating them, the Oilers’ powerplay consistently features an intimidating threat from the point, regardless of which unit takes the ice.

Winning in December is not Winning in April

So where do the Oilers go from here? Home for the holidays and basking in the buzz of their record setting road trip, the team is unfortunately not in a position to rest on their laurels. Still 4 points back of a playoff position in the Western Conference, the Oilers must win at a .600 clip the remainder of the season to ensure themselves of a slot in the postseason. And the question remains, is simply squeaking into the playoffs enough to satisfy the long suffering Oiler faithful?

The argument for ‘blowing up the team’ and starting over is based on the belief that the Oilers simply do not have enough top flight talent  to seriously compete for the Cup. A five game unbeaten streak on the road raises a glimmer of hope they do, but the acid test is not how the team plays before Christmas, but how they’ll respond in the new year when the dog days of the NHL season begin in earnest.

Count me in as one of the cynics who believe the team’s recent success, whilst cause for celebration, did come at the expense of a number of teams currently slumping in the standings. While the Oilers’ newfound commitment to team play and defensive responsibility is as welcome as it is overdue, doubts persist on whether the Oilers have the size and talent to compete with the upper echelon teams in the Western Division.

Erasing those doubts can only be done by beating the toughest competition. As always, that road leads to Calgary, where Edmonton`s hated provincial rival currently sits atop the Northwest Division, 8 points ahead of the Oilers with a game in hand. Following their impressive road victory over the San Jose Sharks, the Flames are staking their claim alongside the Chicago Blackhawks as one of the Western Conference’s top contenders for the Cup. As such, they remain the measuring stick against which the Oilers must measure themselves.

With a home-and-home series scheduled against the Flames over the Christmas break, Oiler fans will not have long to wait to see what the holidays holds for their beloved team. If the team can build on its current success, the denizens of Oil Country may at long last enjoy the unveiling of a diamond in the rough, as opposed to the lump of coal we`ve come to expect this time of year.