Last year the Oilers rolled into the Windy City feeling pretty good about themselves toting a perfect 4-0 record. Dwayne Roloson got his first start of the season that night, which was also a Wednesday, but Nikolai Khabibulin was the star earning a 3-0 win.
Fast forward to tonight.
The Oilers are back in Chicago, sporting a nice 3-1-1 record. And like last year, they have three wins in games where they were out shot.
But there are some distinct differences to last year.
This time Khabibulin is on their team. The Oilers have 19 goals, with eleven different forwards having at least one. Last year it took them nine games to get 20 goals, and only eight forwards scored in the first ten games.
Three players, Dustin Penner, Denis Grebeshkov (how’s that goat pick going Wanye?) and Mike Comrie are averaging a point a game. In fact, the only skaters who don’t have a point yet are Sheldon Souray and Steve Staios.
The Oilers are getting balanced scoring from all four lines.
- Hemsky, Horcoff and Jacques have combined for three goals and eight points.
- Gagner, O’Sullivan and Stone have three goals and eight points.
- Brule, Penner and Comrie have six goals and 14 points.
- Moreau, Cogliano and Stortini have tallied four goals and seven points.
- Hell, even the blueliners are chipping in.
In 2007/08 Grebeshkov had a measly 34 shots in 71 games. Last year he fired 62 shots in 72 games, but he already has nine shots in five games this season.
Two years ago Ladislav Smid had four assists in 65, while last year he registered eleven apples in 60 games, but this year he is on fire with three assists in five games. The problem for Smid is he doesn’t have a shot on goal yet, and his goalless streak is at 130 games.
His last goal came in the final game of the 2006/07, season when he scored in Calgary. Smid hasn’t scored since Gagner was drafted.
Even Jason Strudwick is on a scoring binge, having two points in three games, although maybe we shouldn’t be that surprised considering he set a career high with nine points last season.
But the two biggest differences I’ve seen so far is their willingness to play physical, and that they’ve been ready from the drop of the puck.
The Oilers haven’t been dominated early in game so far. They’ve outscored their opponents 9-3 in the first period so far. Getting behind early, or getting dominated territorially were chronic problems last year, and so far they’ve managed to avoid that.
Their inability to close out games has been an issue, and one they will need to rectify, but it they can continually get out to good starts, then they’ll have the chance to work on protecting the lead or at least finishing strong.
In their first five games last year the Oilers had 87 hits, and so far this year they have 107. Jacques (21), Stone (17) and Brule (14) and Stortini (10) have combined for 62, and it isn’t surprising to see all of them on a different line. The first three weren’t here last year, and you can’t underestimate their value in making this Oiler team more physical.
Last season the Oilers could go half a period without a hit, or any energy that could possibly reverse the momentum in their favour. This year, that hasn’t been the case, and if they keep playing physical it shouldn’t change. None of the other forwards are hitting more than before, it’s just that the three new forwards are hitting and are making an impact every game.
- It’s true that Moreau plays well v. Chicago with 10 goals and 18 points in 28 career games, but they are his second favourite team to play. In 44 career games against Phoenix he has 17 goals.
- Penner loves playing the Hawks more. He has eight goals in 14 games, the most goals against any NHL team.
- O’Sullivan has lit the lamp six times in 12 career games against the Blackhawks. The only team O’Sullivan feasted on more was the Oilers, with six goals and nine points in nine career games.
- Khabibulin also thrives against the Hawks, with a record of 12-6-1, a 2.16 GAA, .929 S% and three shutouts. The only team he has shut out more is the Kings.
- The Hawks have 18 goals through five games with Patrick Sharp 4-3-7, Patrick Kane 3-4-7, Kris Versteeg 1-5-6 and Brent Seabrook 1-4-5 leading the way.
- Jonathon Toews only has one assist thus far, while free agent signing Tomas Kopecky has zero points and is -4 with the Hawks.
- Like the Oilers the Hawks have four guys with double digits in hits: Seabrook (16), Troy Brouwer (15), Dustin Byfuglien (15) and John Madden with 12.
- The Hawks are great in the draw. Toews is 60%, Dave Bolland 56.4%, John Madden 55.4% and Colin Fraser 53.3%.
- Horcoff is 56.9% in the draws, while Brule is 46.5%, Cogliano 43.8% and Gagner 39.5%.
- As a team the Oilers are 50.6% overall, which puts them 12th in the NHL. The Hawks are 3rd best in the dot winning 56.4% of their faceoffs. The Oilers will need to bear down tonight.