I have to begin with a confession I’ve made before – I was born in Edmonton, and I grew up an Oilers fan. Regardless of that fact, I think the misery of the Oiler predicament has moved past funny and into the territory usually reserved for when your friend is in a bad relationship and can’t seem to get out – it’s awkward and uncomfortable and comes with equal parts sympathy and fatigue. “Have you tried changing your opinion on corsi and analytics? You have? I mean… maybe you have to get a new goalie? You were saying your goalies have been bad. You have to do something. You can’t keep going like this. I know, I know it’s hard.”
So, any Oiler fans or sympathizers, I promise not to pile on in this preview. Edmonton has a better hockey club than their record states, and it’s just a matter of time before they finally beat a Western conference opponent. It could even be the Jets tonight, with injuries to Tobias Enstrom and Grant Clitsome forcing Ben Chiarot into this second NHL game in front of Ondrej Pavelec. (But, I mean, probably not…)
With 5 days off, it seems the injuries that forced Bryan Little and Matthieu Perreault out of the game against Boston have healed. Or, hockey player healed, meaning they are able to fit their equipment on and hold their stick at the very least.
But holes on the roster remain, with Thorburn (4:08) and Peluso (3:06) each earning less than 5 minutes of ice time in a close OT contest against a talented but physical opponent. A classic refrain on this blog has been ‘common sense lineup,’ and it was a feature strongly avoided under Claude Noel, who put Thorburn on the third line and loved to play his also-rans for 10+ minutes a night. One of the features of the new regime is to play the hockey players over the warm bodies, with Thorburn the obvious litmus test – dropping from 9 minutes a night last season to 6 in 2014/15. No one can argue with the results given the positive shot differential never seen under Claude Noel. Oh, and being in a playoff position is pretty nice.
Ben Chiarot pulls in due to injury. His first NHL outing was one to forget – a -3 showing in just 15 shifts and visible problems managing the speed of the game. He’s a year wiser, and the team has a lot more structure in the defensive end, so we can hope for better.
Despite the team’s greater success, Mark Stuart and Jacob Trouba remain a statistical problem, showing the only negative rel-corsi among defenders at a whopping -12. Mark Stuart’s penalties are way up, but they boast a +2 on a team with a -4 goal differential so for now things stay the same.
In years past, the Oilers focused their offence below the circles, scoring 17 goals against the Jets in their last 4 matchups. This year’s Oilers are different, with offence organized vertically, which should favour a Jets team that uses a lot of collapsing forwards to defend the net. But as always in these games, the goalies are wildcards. Anything can happen!
- Hall – Nugent Hopkins – Pitlick
- Yakupov – Draisaitl – Eberle
- Perron – Gordon – Purcell
- Gazdic – Arcobello – Pinizzotto
Due to injury, the Oilers are icing a very different top 12 than usual. A fourth line that was anchored by Boyd Gordon was the team’s heavy minutes lines, starting in the defensive end almost exclusively with Matt Hendricks and Jesse Joensuu adding some physicality along with strong hockey skills. Tonight, the Oilers ice a true 4th line that could fit on any of the teams from the last decade. Most likely we’ll see both teams shelter their fourth lines by playing them head-to-head. These shifts will be good moments to go to the fridge.
For those who don’t know him, Tyler Pitlick is a former second round choice who has battled injury to make an impact at the pro level. His offence is well short of what was hoped for him, but the verbal is always positive, and you’ll see why. He’s a fast, physical, head-strong player who eats up space and finishes everything. He’s got a little more skill than, say, JF Jacques, but I’m not sure how he ended up on the top line. His speed and aggression might be enough to blow open the gaps of the Jets defenders, many of whom struggle with that skill perpetually, which would certainly give the Oiler stars more room than they’ve had most of the year in the tough checking West. We will see.
- Klefbom – Petry
- Ference – Schultz
- Nikitin – Fayne
Oilers management has a very singular problem on the back end, and it’s their own pride. Having watched Nikitin play often this season, I believe he is a singular reason for many of the team’s struggles. The defence of Justin Schultz has been another glaring issue. Meanwhile, Martin Marincin might be their best defender already, and has a predicability to his defending that the Oilers badly crave – closes out lanes, finishes checks, picks up his man, boxes out, makes a clean outlet, repeat. On a team where even their veterans are making frantic decisions to adapt to mistakes, Marincin simply doing his own job has been a relief to watch. He’s also faced the toughest competition in just his second season and is -4 in 12 games with a team that has a -31 goal differential. Of course, he’s been sent back to the AHL as Nikitin and Schultz are the prideful choices with the greatest dollar value attached to their play.
I promised not to pile on, and I mean it. The Oilers have more tools at their disposal than their record would indicate, and have many of the same problems the Jets have had the last few years. A lack of depth and a manager trying to prove something leads to some odd-ball lineup decisions. It’s starting from a place of weakness before the puck even drops. They’ll figure it out, just like the Jets seem to be.
Game-day Prediction: Oilersnation calls for a 3-2 Winnipeg win. Since they were so generous, we will be too. Oilers find some holes in Pavelec (like, you know, through and around him) to get the monkey off their back with a 4-2 win.
Obvious Prediction: Ben Chiarot is not, uh… he goes -2 and doesn’t play in the third period.
Not-so-obvious Prediction: Adam Lowry begins his career as an Oiler-killer, scoring both the Jets goals and running over Nikita Nikitin to send him out of the game in the first period. It unwittingly aids the Oilers on their road to victory in this game, and leads to a lengthy winning streak. Winnipeg media lauds Lowry his gruff effort. Edmonton fans laud Lowry his mercy.