Life without Ryan Whitney begins tonight for the Oilers, and it doesn’t seem likely that they will have the horses to stay competitive. Whitney has been Mr. Everything for the Oilers this year. He leads them in points, assists, plus/minus and icetime. He is +13 on a team where the other D-men are all minus, except Jim Vandermeer (+3), and are a combined -32. Whitney was having a career year, and the Oilers backend looks overmatched without him.
Maybe it is fitting the Oilers face the Avalanche tonight, because it seems they are destined to be plunging down the standings with Whitney on the injured list. Granted, the Oilers don’t have far to fall, with only the Islanders and Devils below them in the standings, but staying competitive in games will be much harder without the 5th overall pick in 2002.
The Avs have 13 players with five or more goals and lots of scoring depth. Chris Stewart was leading the Avs with 25 points in 23 games when he broke his hand, but the Avs haven’t missed a beat since he got hurt. Greg Sherman has quietly made some really good moves and after Stewart went down he acquired Tomas Fleishmann for an aging Scott Hannan. Fleishmann has 12 points in 12 games since coming over from Washington and when Stewart returns the Avs will be even more dangerous.
The Avs are the highest scoring team in the NHL right now, averaging 3.47 goals per game so this is not the most ideal matchup for Tom Renney in his first game without his best defenceman. The Avs are 29th in GAA though, while the Oilers are 30th. At first glance you might think the Oilers can run and gun with the Avs, but the main reason their GAA is so high is because their PK is horrific.
Colorado is 29th on the PK at 75.9%. They’ve given up 34 PP goals this year, and only the Oilers have surrendered more down a man at 36. Joe Sacco is quite happy with his team’s five-on-five play, but he is concerned about the PK. He acknowledged they don’t have a steady shut down defender and he’s been trying a variety of different combinations to find some guys he can rely on.
Sound familiar Oiler fans?
RUN AND GUN?
It would be great fun to watch the Oilers play firewagon hockey tonight against the Avalanche, but Renney didn’t seem like he wanted to just turn his troops lose tonight.
"I think we have to make sure we give ourselves a chance to win by playing within our system. I don’t think this is a trackmeet night. We have to pay attention to detail with and without the puck. They are an energetic team, they believe in their game plan, they play on their toes, they’re relentless and they don’t quit. We need to match their intensity."
While Renney is cautious to get into a game of run and gun with the Avs he won’t be cautious in giving Jeff Petry lots of opportunities in Whitney’s absence.
"Ah what the hell, bring him in and play him. That’s what he is here for. We aren’t going to protect guys from playing hockey. It’s a tough situation, but it’s an opportunity to look at our defencemen within the organization. It’s a great opportunity for Petes to see if he can contribute on our PP and our PK and we can see what type of a hockey player he is and how close he is to being a regular NHLer.”’
LINE UP CHANGES
Nikolai Khabibulin wasn’t great against Buffalo, so Devan Dubnyk will get another start tonight and he will be tested often by the Avs. The other changes will see Gilbert Brule and Zack Stortini draw in, while Linus Omark and JF Jacques will get a seat in the pressbox.
Brule will play with Ryan O’marra and Magnus Paajarvi, while Stortini will skate with Colin Fraser and Ryan Jones. I asked Renney what Stortini needs to do to become a regular in the lineup.
"If he could skate like Andrew Cogliano that’d be great. The game is happening fast and I love Storts’ ability to get in on the body, go hard to the net and be a real physical presence for us. He has a bit of a limitation when it comes to skating, but no limitations beyond his ability to think the game and his desire to play the game. He is a tough guy to scratch to be honest with you. He is a tough scratch for me because of the heart that he brings to this organization every single day. It is not an easy one to explain."
I understand that Stortini isn’t the greatest skater, but his intensity, desire and hockey sense are much better than Jacques at this point, and even though Jacques skates better he hasn’t been close to as effective as Stortini. Look for Stortini to be involved early in the game. He wants to grab Renney’s attention.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Oilers will be overmatched without Whitney and drop their fifth straight losing 5-3.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Both teams are brutal on the PK, and both will get a pair of PP goals. The Oilers will actually shoot the puck with some regularity tonight and Renney will implore them to do that more in future games.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: In the 2nd period Taylor Hall will register his 3rd shot of the game, and the PA announcer will let the fans know that that was Hall’s 100th shot of the season. The announcement will be sponsored by Joe’s Fish Emporium.
He will be the 2nd rookie to have 100 shots this year, and during the announcement the Oilers will drop 100 shot glasses (with parachutes of course) from the rafters as a late Christmas gift. One of the shot glasses will be autographed by Hall and the recipient will recieve a 40 of Jager as a prize. The subtle suggestion that fans might need alcohol to get through the final few months won’t be lost on anyone.