The Cold War in hockey stills
For Jets fans, this contest had a charming effect. Goals exclusively by rookies and time spent in the zone furthest from their struggling netminder were enough to push the mistakes to the back burner on Paul Maurice’s continued campaign for the hearts and minds of Jets fans. For Oilers fans, it was another frustrating afternoon with more promise than delivery.
In either case, these old rivals brightened an afternoon in January with big hits, crazy chances, and a few bonus minutes for the hoarse fans at the MTS Centre.
It was a a tilted effort, but the good guys had to overcome an aggressive swarm in the first period that gave viewers that uncomfortable feeling that breakdowns would be the difference. Responding with a committment to skill plays and possession, the Jets slowly began to create hesitation in the Oliers’ forecheck, and the focus of the moved from whether the Jets could break out to whether the Oilers could support the puck long enough to put three touches together in a row.
The goals weren’t easy to come by, though. Tight gaps and physical play in the open ice, and swarming along the boards meant even while possessing, the Jets didn’t manage many clean looks at the net. Three individual plays to break loose were the difference, and Trouba and Scheifele made good. That’s not to say it was a lucky effort. The Jets out shot, out chanced, and out possessed the frustrated Oilers. Bryzgalov and that physical, close gap game in the Oilers’ defensive end were all that kept the score close.
In fact, after a scoreless first that could have gone either way, the Oilers opened the scoring on the powerlay well into the second. A switch by Trouba left Stuart to defend his off-side while Hall and Nugent Hopkins cycled to his left. Fixated on the puck, Stuart put his butt to the blue paint and crouched to defend a passing lane to no one while Eberle moved into the hashmarks. Nugent Hopkins split the box with a pass Stuart was 10 feet too deep to defend and Eberle fired an uncontested wrister to the top corner over Stuart in his leg-save position.
Poor Eric O’Dell was in the box for that one, as he continues to straddle the line between ‘veteran interference plays’ and ‘hooking guys a lot.’
Trouba tied the game by tapping home a short handed pass from off-centre in the low slot six minutes into the third on a ridiculous individual play by Bryan Little. Little carried wide on his off-wing, toe-dragged to safety when Petry went sprawling to block the pass, re-loaded to his backhand below Petry’s feet, then cut back up to avoid Belov before delivering a seeing-eye pass past the checked Ladd to the wide open Trouba for a back-door tap in. (His goal scoring is really regressing, though, guys.)
A few minutes later, Scheifele took the puck off the boards with Perron in chase, turned away and into Petry’s pressure zone, only to push right through that player on his way to the net. A mis-read by Marincin, thinking Gordon would take the walking lane, gave Scheifele a chance to walk right out, bat one off Bryz and then shovel his own rebound into the net. That was his first ever goal at the MTS Centre.
Fans chanted Bryzgalov’s name in a show of catharsis for so many near misses, big saves, and Oiler bounces. Bryz waived back, and then smiled at the fans during the TV timeout.
At least he owns his villain status in the soon-to-be laser capital of the prairies.
And with just two minutes left in regulation, Bryz got a bit of revenge. A terrible, unbelievable rebound by Pavelec on a weak shoot-in led to Enstrom chasing all the way to the board-side hashmarks and joining two Jets forwards at the blue line. Petry fired the puck back down low and Bogosian wasn’t boxing out Perron, who tipped the puck through. It looked like a Jets play as drawn up by Claude Noel. Horrible.
In OT, the better team on the day won out. Eberle went 1-on-1 with Trouba, got the puck through him but was bodied to the ice. A quick up to Wheeler put him in a similar show down with Petry, who he took toward the corner, spun around and got past. Around the Bryzgalov poke check, he went off into the corner without control, when Petry caught up and then shot the puck right into Wheeler’s chest. Meanwhile, Trouba had stormed down and thrown Belov over Bryz and into the net. Now open, he took the pass from Wheeler out of the corner and tapped it past the sprawling Russians.
The goals were of the ‘Best to Cheer For’ variety, but it was the structural differences that were the best part of this Jets game. The forecheck was still aggressive, but a shift in the pressure point from below the goal line to the space between the corner and hashmarks made for a tighter defensive transition. The Jets had back pressure, which let their defenders step up and force dump players. The Jets even managed a flat 3-2 trap in the neutral zone, which is common in the NHL but not for the Jets, who used a wing lock trap under Noel if/when they had neutral zone presence. The difference is that the Oilers had many fewer easy zone entries, and Jets forwards weren’t chasing back and forth horizontally. We’ll get into all the differences in the weeks to come as the Jets smooth out their new look.
If Jacob Trouba could play the Oilers every game, he’d be competing for the Hart. Three goals and an assist in three contests against the old Smythe Division rivals. He played 23:32 in this one and appears to be the primary mover in the Byfuglien forward experiment. He had his share of brain farts and lost reads, but largely just took over for Mark Stuart and played both sides of the rink. That’s not ideal, but it’s the best anyone has done with Stuart yet this season. His 1-on-1 play to stop Eberle before going to the other end to pot the winner was among the best individual defensive plays of the day, and showed his distance on Pardy, for example, who was turned inside out by Eberle and by Hall in this game thanks to his edge work.
In Byfuglien’s 500th career game, he got two ovations. The first was prompted by the jumbotron, but the second was prompted by his short handed play, when he stole the puck, beat an Oiler forward with a simple play off the board and steamed into the offensive zone for an attempted wrap around. He was all over the ice in this one, played defence on special teams, forward at evens, used his body like no one can, and put a ton of rubber on net. Terrific game for the big guy, and it’s encouraging to see Maurice using him as the unique rover that he is.
Mark Scheifele. This kid has really progressed. Yes, the goal was impressive and we would have seen him hesitate on the play to the net or fall over in the corner a couple months ago. But that wasn’t it for me. For me, it was a play in the second in which instead of picking up a puck below the goal line that was coming to his area, he turned into a pick on the Oiler defender and left the puck for Wheeler, who suddenly had room. That play showed team work, awareness, and comfort. It wasn’t a rookie play. I’m sure he’s done it 1,000 times at other levels of hockey, but we can see his tunnel vision disappearing at the NHL level, and his early problems of trying to do everything himself on every sortie seem behind him.
Enstrom is probably the best player on the Jets, and his passing, positioning, and poise are off the charts. How many terrible passes did Bogosian just fire at his general direction? He turned every one into a craddled possession and a next-level pass. Unreal. There was some talk about taking him off the PP, but he’s almost always the guy who settles the puck when things start getting a bit hairy. He makes flat passes to areas where his teammates can do something with it, rather than just giving it to a player to get checked. He has the 6th most powerplay points among NHL defencemen over the last 3 years, and that’s on a brutally bad powerplay. He’s not the problem on that unit.
This team needs Evander Kane back badly, even for all the good in this game.
Another positive is that Chris Thorburn sat out the entire third period. We saw O’Dell get a promotion, and the Jets managed two goals and deliver their best period of the game. Now, Thorburn didn’t individually prevent goals, and O’Dell was on the ice for the Scheifele goal but didn’t record a point. Still, the difference is one we’ve talk about often. If the team wants "60 minutes" of hockey, wants to maintain pressure and momentum and be dangerous on every shift, Chris Thorburn is a problem.
Most exciting? None of Wright, Thorburn, or Peluso played an even strength shift in the third. Frolik had 13 shifts, O’Dell 7, Little and Ladd 12 – all big jumps. With the game on the line, this coach shortened his bench aggressively and correctly selected which players were having a positive impact.
Dustin Byfuglien poses for Socialist Realist portrait entitled "The Future"
Pavelec continues his hot garbage in goal pads performance this season. There’s not much he can do to prevent Eberle from getting the shot he did on the first goal, but once again we’re left to wonder if he ever talks out there or if he even knows where the play is going next. Could he tell Stuart to not standing in a screening position (Stuart’s favourite) and watch the actual passing lane? Was he aware? He didn’t challenge out to the shooter, but moved flat laterally and had no angle on Ebs. Classic Pavs. And the second goal was because he took a soft shot off the paddle of his stick and kicked it as far away from his supporting defender as he could. A three foot rebound and Enstrom takes control. Did he not know he was there?
I continue to strongly dislike Mark Stuart’s game. He fought Matt Hendricks when his team was pressing for a goal. He was the worst corsi defender on the team (again, as always) and is not even good at the job he’s acclaimed for – killing penalties. It’s time for him to move on and stop being the ideal on the backend.
Sum It Up
The Oilers were beaten soundly in this contest, and it’s hard to not feel for them and their fans. So little is wrong, and yet it just seems to snowball through the periods. The first period was one of the best we’ve seen from them in recent months, with incredible pressure in the offensive zone, and the swarm overwhelming the Jets all around the ice. The Jets managed to gets some pucks behind the swarm and to the net, and penalties interrupted the Oilers’ flow. Periods two and three, the group became more and more spread out, supporting each other less and less. Breaking out was a problem, and sorties ended all the time with a long pass to a guarded forward.
As Jets fans, we know that feeling well. A few minutes of real pressure, some up-ice success, and turnovers galore trying to break out. It’s systematic, and while we could blame Noel for organizing things that way over three years, no one can be sure where the breakdown is from Eakins’ brain to what we watch on the ice. The difference on these clubs has been the two-way veterans for the Jets. Enstrom, Byfuglien, Ladd, Little, Frolik, Wheeler, and even Jokinen. Scheifele and Trouba and Bogosian and O’Dell aren’t the heart of the lineup, even on nights where they look like it. The Oilers have so many players who have either offence or defence to give, and it’s not a recipe for success in the West.
Adding grit and size has been the mantra for years there, and while shipping out Souray and Horcoff and Penner, they bring in Fistric and Smithson and Hendricks. Jets fans should thank our lucky stars that we inherited skill players with size and speed. They don’t grow on trees. Just ask our neighbours to the West.