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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Applying Cold War tactics for the Oilers PP


It's been a long time since I saw the Oilers play a full 60 minute game. Tonight, they came close. But tonight, it was not a story of a disheartening play. Rather, it was a story of a disheartening loss caused by unfortunate circumstances.

The Oilers were forechecking hard and finishing their bodychecks. The forecheckers were turning over pucks, pressuring point men, attacking on the fly, and keeping the intensity level high. The Oilers D (with the exception of Steve Staios) were making safe plays, turning the puck over quickly for outlet passes, and playing a tight but smart defensive game. Yet, the Oilers still lost the game and here a few reasons why.

One deadly flaw was Smid and Moreau allowing the pass to a wide-open Iginla for the 1-1 tying goal. The other was Staios getting caught on a bad Oilers line change and attacking the shooter instead of the passer - who to his knowledge, had apparently come out of nowhere. Roloson bailed out the bad line change who I believe was Sam Gagner. It's okay to change with the puck in transition 5v5 but in OT you cannot wear yourself out in the offensive zone and hanging your team mates out to dry on a self-manufactured odd-man rush, the same way you can't overcommit to the point of exhaustion on the PK: it's all about taking advantages opportunities and forcing the other team to make the mistake in such situations and the Oilers were the ones who made the mistake in this circumstance. If Gagner did the same thing in OT or in a 4v4 situation in the playoffs, I would bench him without a second thought.

I'm sure David Staples will have a similar outlook on the play of Staios, Moreau, and Horcoff over at his blog. I would suggest that Sam Gagner be subscribed to a lesson how to make good dump-ins and/or a lesson from Hemsky on how to gain the blue line,

Of particular interest is the fact that Glencross is so effective in Battle of Alberta games. He is built to play the style of Western Canadian hockey and he has shown he is invaluable on both the Oilers and the Flames, setting up Lombardi by screening Roloson.

Also of interest is that Curtis Glencross screened Roloson with his back turned to the play. Not that I think this is a valid rule at all, but last time I checked if a player is not involved in the active play what is screening the goalie with his back turned - that's the rule and it's illegal. Except I forgot that it's only illegal if your name is Sean Avery, and not Curtis Glencross. My mistake.

I call shenanigans.


As the scouting report probably made clear to the Oilers - Kipper is a goalie who can be beat by deke moves in the shootout because his angling and reactions make him less prone to shooters. However, the opposite scouting report obviously revealed the Oilers had a lot of skill guys with a lot of moves.

I'd hope that MacTavish throws a few different looks next time he picks the 3 shooters for the shootout roster. Nilsson, Gagner, and Hemsky are all skill guys who can "stickhandle in a phone booth" but Kipper was well aware of this. Gagner's gaffe plus Nilsson being pokechecked by Kipper meant that Hemsky probably should've chose to shoot.

He probably didn't shoot because the Oilers, and Oilers' fans, were expecting something of the highlight real variety. Often times, the Oilers rely too much on Hemsky and though at first glance Hemsky looks like a ballhog, it soon becomes apparent that the other Oilers, such as Horcoff (who was good at faceoffs tonight but atrocious at all other things hockey-related) and Penner become spectators who expect him to set them up perfectly or find them in a tough situation. Sometimes that means Horcoff stand on the half-boards waiting for a one-time pass that has no business being tried; sometimes this is Penner along the corner boards waiting for the cycle that was defeated at the blue line (due to lack of puck support which provides passing lane options to Hemsky, the puck-carrier). The outcome of this is Penner and Horcoff (two players who can skate) becoming spectators in what is not a spectator sport.

So with Gagner's gaffe and Nilsson's failed attempt on his mind, was he going to shoot?

If he shot (and Hemsky has a great shot) perhaps losing wouldn't have felt so sour. Maybe. But I'm sure there would be more than a few puzzled souls out there feeling like Hemsky could've done more. Hemsky has a history of shooting high and wide in the shootout and his success has mostly come when he can deke out the goalie. So he could've deked him out but failed. He could've faked the shot. He could've gone five hole. I'm sure us fans have all manners of suggestions. Hemsky, for once, did what was expected, and unfortunately, Kippers saw it coming.

Hemsky is a great player. But tonight anyone who watched the game will have saw him battling the puck. And to expect him to come through after the first two shooters failed miserably - is a bit unfair. Sure, he's Hemsky. Almost every night he's our best player and if he fails once due to situations he can't control, don't blame him for it.

How can MacTavish avoid such pressure situations?

He should avoid sending out 3 dekers and have at least one shooter. Such shootout rosters would look like this:

Hemsky <-deker
Horcoff <-shooter
Nilsson <-both

Gagner <-deker
Penner <-shooter
Hemsky <-deker

Pouliot <-both (or some would say neither ... but he's got some good SO moves)
Cole <-shooter
Hemsky <-deker

In hockey as any sport or activity based on strategy, deception of the opponent is key. By being predictable, we are making it easier for other teams to play us, not harder. I'm not saying my shootout rosters would rip up the league, but I can guarantee they would be more successful at confusing opposition goalies.

Erik Cole, Liam Reddox, and Steve MacIntyre

Holy moley what happened to Erik Cole. Gone is the lost and confused Cole of the first half of the season. This Cole is still hitting like a demon but now he's creating chances (for himself, and others) and making plays. His forechecking makes the opposition D shit their pants and as a result I would've gave the second star to him, not to Shawn Horcoff as CBC or Rexall did.

Liam Reddox is looking like a more and more effective hockey player. He's had his ups and downs. In training camp I was eagerly anticipating his call-up and when he scored in his first game up I was extremely pleased. MacBlender shortly blew his play to chunks by playing him in a role that does not befit him at this stage in his career. By finding a home as an energy player with above-average hands (relative to other 3rd-4th line rookies) he has become a valuable spark that has seen Brodziak and Stortini pick up their play as of late.

I'm also impressed with MacIntyre's ability to make the safe play so that the Oilers can have organized line changes. In this department, he may have the edge over one Sam Gagner, who manages to make a lot of boneheaded blue-line turnovers prior to line changes as a result of forcing plays when he has no puck support. Understandably, Gagner has the better skill set. But perhaps MacIntyre's awareness of his lack of offensive ability allows him to look at the situation and make the safe play. Gagner will learn this as he becomes an older hockey player.

Brownlee or somebody over at OilersNation quoted MacIntyre has having said something about having to learn how to "play hockey" if fighting was ever taken out of the game. By crashing the net, making safe dumps for chases and/or line changes, something some other players are unwilling to do or unaware of doing, means he's well on his way to achieving that. It's something that Stortini learned a while ago and it's something MacIntyre is starting to do very well.

Special Teams

The Oilers looked great on the PK.

The same cannot be said of the PP.

Every knows the Oilers pass too much on the PP - waiting for the Souray or Horcoff slapshots to open up and this is apparent to opposition NHL teams as well because they shut down those passing lanes in a blink of an eye. A developing trend in the Oilers play that I've noticed is that when they drop their foot movement in anticipation, the Oilers neglect to provide puck support down low. Instead, they resort to throwing the puck back to Souray and Hemsky.

Though I'm sure this is the M.O. for the Oilers PP strategist to have as many Souray point shots as possible, remember that a big weapon can merely be a deterrent as well.

During the Cold War, the phrase "mutually assured destruction" mean that you must be M.A.D. to try to use a nuclear weapon which would most likely lead to a situation of nuclear winter and guaranteed destruction of the involved nuclear-armed nations. The aftermath would be a blanket of aerosols that would blanket the Earth and snuff out all living things in a short or long term ice age situation.

Having the nukes as a deterrent is like having Souray like a deterrent. He draws the forechecker up high to blot out the slapshot but that should automatically mean Gilbert and Hemsky move up to form a triangle so that Souray has two easy outs in terms of passing lanes. This makes it easy to drive it up the middle because the forward is up so high to defend the one-timer that the passing lane opens up.

Now that the Horcoff passing lane is gradually being phased out by NHL teams, it's time for the Oilers half-board players (Hemsky, Gilbert) to simply take it to the middle, shoot it, and get the rebound chance for Penner and/or Horcoff. Why? Because Horcoff can simply be a decoy as well.

Having weapons and firepower is only effective if you know how to use it. The Oilers need to be able to force other teams to play them a certian way on the PK, instead of running their PP around what the PK unit dictates.

The Oilers have not learned how to run an effective powerplay yet. From what I've seen, the Oilers play better without man advantages because it usually just kills their skating game, switches momentum in favor of the opposite team and gives the opposite to the desired result of actually making it harder on the other team.

If I were the Oilers, I would hire someone who actually knows how to run a PP unit so that the weapons are being used to their full advantages - someone who is so scrupulous that he can recognize the team's biggest weaknesses and then eliminate them immediately.


From what I saw tonight, the Oilers are definitely good enough to make the playoffs. But from the mistakes, gaffes, and slight strategic errors on the behalf of a few players and/or coaching staff, we might need some more tough losses like the one we had tonight to remind us that playing less than a full 60 for a game that was 65+ is not acceptable for a team slipping quickly out of 8th... 9th... spot.

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