No hockey, just soap operas. With so few games we’ve had no choice but to stew in a slew of daily dramas. Tensions are high everywhere, spilling into interviews. Things are in a state of decay, with the same problems from past years looming, the same chorus of questions growing louder as the team’s performances slide into disappointment. At this point almost all of our names have been called into question, how deep do we need to go to get to the bottom of this? Until the team starts improving instead of watching 2017 fade off into the distance?
At the very least the echoes of well-wishes from the season’s hot start, “good teams don’t lose 2 in row”, or something like that, fade from our collective memory. 2-10-2 in their last 14 games is just about as bad as things can get. However one feels about any of the individual areas the Oilers are lacking, it’s clear that all these issues are snowballing into each other.
The chance to fight all of these stirring conflicts at once comes tonight against a formidable opponent, the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are unquestionably among the league’s top tier, and just as much one of the most entertaining teams, playing what might be the most aggressive offensive style there is. Defenders jump into the offensive transition at every opportunity, cross ice passes that are bold and risky turn into high danger chances and odd man rushes.
All the pieces are in place for some fireworks, and if the Oilers have a spark within the gloom of a bad December that’s already into late January, tonight is the perfect time to find it.
It seems like Koskinen will be in goal for the Oilers, with Bobrovsky getting the start for the Panthers.
KEYS TO THE GAME
- Play all 60. I won’t try to say they should score first, but no matter what the game will be up for grabs or the Oilers. The Panthers score a lot, but their aggressiveness can be used against them.
- Counter attack. The Panthers will generate lots of chances. If the Oilers can play strong defensively, and get a few timely saves, there should be plenty of opportunities to get prime chances off of those commitments.
- Lead after the 1st. Okay, I’m being facetious, but apparently teams have had success against the Oilers in this way.
- Better road effort. Despite the Panthers success this season, they are but 5-5-5 on the Road. It’s a strange split from their sterling Home record.
Edmonton: Perlini is a game time decision, Skinner added to COVID protocols, Lagesson demoted (cleared waivers)
Perlini — McDavid — Yamamoto
Hyman — Draisaitl — Puljujarvi
Foegele — McLeod — Kassian
Shore — Ryan — Sceviour
Nurse — Ceci
Keith — Barrie
Russell — Bouchard
Florida: Forsling added to COVID protocols, Hornqvist and Vatrano are out.
Verhaeghe — Barkov — Reinhart
Huberdeau — Bennett — Duclair
Mamim — Lundell — Marchment
Lomberg — Luostarinen — Tippett
Weegar — Ekblad
Juolevi — Montour
Carlsson — Gudas
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Edmonton: If you are a fan of optimism, or at least an optimistic Oilers fan, then the most important off ice interview this month was a beaming Brendan Perlini. Here’s hoping that his attitude can rub off on his teammates, and really the fan base itself. He will have a perfect platform on the top line (or one of the top 2) to make a meaningful and significant impact. Yamamoto joins to form a new look McDavid line, not surprisingly given the results of late.
The Draisaitl line is quite loaded and should be able to deliver a strong performance. The Oilers haven’t played much in general, but it definitely feels like it’s been a while since we’ve seen McLeod on the 3rd line with some regular 3rd line type wingers, as often he’s been deployed with players being moved up circumstantially, if not being promoted to the 2nd line himself.
A lot of general fans around the league rag on Ceci, but I believe he can be a contributor on a strong defence. That being said, the top pair is too steep for my comfort. Keith and Barrie had a decent first game together, and if somehow they bring out the best in each other the Oilers would be in much better shape. It’s been disappointing to see Bouchard’s icetime and confidence continue to dwindle, but Russell could represent a fairly strong partner given his experience and defensive acumen.
Florida: In my opinion Bill Zito should have won the Jim Gregory for GM of the year last season, as he clearly added a lot of talent that fit with the age of the Panthers core group, up front being Barkov and Huberdeau, while adding a certain flavour of ruggedness Columbus often employed. Splitting up the pair, which was more of a coaching decision, lead to a much deeper attack. These threads can be seen throughout this lineup, starting on the top line. Verhaeghe “came out of nowhere” last season after years of steady improvement in the AHL (perhaps someone Marody truthers will point to) and is proving that was no fluke. He gets dangerous shots and has some playmaking abilities, but also does a lot of good work on the forecheck. Reinhart has been solid since his acquisition from Buffalo, forming a line that is talented and, perhaps even more so, responsible.
The other Sam from the Draisaitl/Ekblad draft is Bennett, whose career took a nice turn when the Panthers played him at centre, and playing with two high scoring wingers in Huberdeau and Duclair certainly helps. This line packs a significant punch offensively, a nice compliment to the top line. Between the top 6, 4 are players that Bill Zito has added recently, all of which are essentially the same age as their two stars. 3 of these four additions, excluding Reinhart, were acquired at discounted costs for one reason or another. It’s only one small area of the lineup, but it very much illustrates how the Panthers have gone from a perpetually middling franchise into an exciting powerhouse.
Lower in the lineup it’s all about Anton Lundell, as the young Finn looks to build on the tradition of strong Panthers centres Jokinen and Barkov. Already looking like a draft steal, the big body, soft hands, and good vision make him an extremely effective player in tight spaces, including the net front.
Weegar and Ekblad are both quite good, an excellent top pairing. Missing Forsling and Nutivaara is not ideal (both Zito additions). Juolevi is a reclamation project that could work out. Perhaps most important is the resurgence of Montour, who struggled in Buffalo after a great start to his career in Anaheim. Montour has good skating ability and puck skills and is conducive to the Panthers attacking style, and honestly Buffalo has made a lot of players look worse than they are in recent seasons.
Bobrovsky is having a strong season in net, no doubt a sigh of relief given his poor results last season and his long, expensive contract. It’s always been volatile for the 2 time Vezina winner, a perfect example of the mercurial nature of the position.