The first stop on a three-game-in-three-and-a-half-days-road-trip is tonight in Phoenix, in front of 8,000-10,000 fans. The Coyotes might not be in Phoenix long-term, because the crowds only come in the playoffs, but they are here now and Dave Tippett always has them well prepared.
When you look down the Coyotes’ roster you wonder why they are 6th in goals for, yet 26th in goals against average. On paper their blueline is the strength of their team.
Martin Hanzal might play tonight, and if he does he’ll slot in with Vrbata while Matthew Lombardi is out indefinitely.
They also have Rostislav Klesla, but he’s only played two of their six games.
Mike Smith is back skating, and he might be ready for the weekend, so the Oilers PP should be licking their chops facing Chad Johnson who only has five career NHL starts, and Monday was his first NHL start in three years.
Historically, a Tippett-coached team is built on solid defence and hard work, but so far this season the Coyotes have struggled defensively.
Much of those struggles can be attributed to below average play from Mike Smith and Jason LaBarbera between the pipes. In four starts (two each) they allowed 19 goals and produced a woeful .850 SV%. LaBarbera did play well after Smith got injured 11 minutes into their game v. Columbus, but he was awful in the his next two starts.
Tippett turned to former AJHL goalie, Johnson, on Monday night and Johnson was perfect. He picked up his first career NHL shutout stopping all 21 shots.
While Phoenix has struggled to keep the puck out of their net, they’ve been surprisingly productive offensively. The Coyotes are 6th in goals scored, 3.5/game, and they are 3rd in ES goals with 14, but they’ve also allowed the 2nd most ES goals with 15.
If they Oilers are going to awake from their five-on-five scoring drought, tonight could be the night.
It is only five games, and likely too early to go crazy, but the Oilers only have two 5-on-5 goals thus far. The good news is that the Hall/RNH/Eberle line is producing lots of chances and shots, but they, like every other line, is not generating many quality second or third chances.
The Oilers need to start going to the net and they need some guys willing to stand battle for some greasy goals. They can’t expect to score all their goals off the rush. They need to start creating scoring chances closer to the net.
The Oilers can get away with below-average ES scoring due to their exceptional powerplay. The Oilers lead the NHL with a sizzling 35.7% efficiency with 10 goals on 28 chances. The NHL record for highest PP% was 31.9% set by Montreal in 1977, so you can expect their % to drop.
The best PP in the last decade was 25.5% by the 2009 Detroit Red Wings. The Washington Capitals had a 25.2% rating in both 2009 and 2010, so it is possible the Oilers, with their young PP specialists, could hover around the 24-27% range.
The Oilers PK has also been very good. Outside of the dreadful first period against San Jose, when the Sharks went 3-for-3, the Oilers have killed off 23 of 24 penalties.
Their special teams have been very good, but just like last season, if the Oilers can’t play even at five-on-five it will be difficult to win.
I’ve seen some suggest the Oilers ES scoring isn’t a concern, because it is only five games, but I’d suggest they recognize that this has been an issue for more than five games.
Over the past three seasons the Oilers have been outscored 516-410 at 5-on-5. Last season they improved, and were only outscored 153-139, but don’t tell me this five-game window is "a small sample size." It has been a problem for years, and while they improved last season, they need to be better this year if they want to become a playoff contender.
It will be interesting to see how Krueger allocates icetime tonight. The 56/20/91 combo had more ES icetime than Horcoff’s line last game and basically the same as Gagner’s line.
Yann Danis cleared waivers, no surprise, and Nikolai Khabibulin will dress and sit on the bench, rather than in the pressbox, which is a good thing considering what happened a few years ago when he was in Phoenix.
- I’m not sure why people still feel the need to question why Shawn Horcoff is on the first powerplay unit. He played there last year and they finished 3rd in the league. He’s on it this year and they are first. When the Oilers PP% starts to drop, please refrain from being the clown who wants to blame Horcoff. His role is to win draws and stay in front of the net. The formula has worked for well for over a year, why does it have to change? Because he makes to much money? Seriously, give it a rest already.
- I like Krueger’s willingness to role four lines and not spend too much time matching them. Tippett loves to match lines, so I’ll be curious to see how, or if, Krueger responds.
- I spoke to Taylor Hall after the Colorado win and he shared a story about Krueger. In the Calgary game Hall had tried numerous toe-drags, but none of them worked. "They weren’t shy to point that out, over an over again (laughs), in our film work this morning. The message was clear, only do those if you are confident you won’t turn over the puck." Hall is a quick learner because you didn’t see him try any v. Colorado. That doesn’t mean he won’t try them again, nor does it mean if one fails he’s in the doghouse, but the message was received. The Oilers need to cut down on turnovers.
- I wonder if Nail Yakupov will do the same? Yakupov really struggled v. Colorado, especially with turnovers. Krueger wants to see how the young players react after a bad outing. I suspect Yakupov will protect the puck better tonight.
- The Oilers are 2nd in the NHL in turnovers. I know it isn’t the most accurate stat, because each building marks them differently, but I didn’t need to look at the NHL website to realize the Oilers are turning it over too often. I suspect they will always be near the top, because they are more of a puck possession team, but they have to avoid the 5-star giveaways at the offensive blueline.
- Jeff Petry and Ladislav Smid weren’t great in Calgary and were average v. Colorado. They seemed to be a split-second off and got caught in between attacking or sitting back in their own zone. Defensive zone timing is crucial for defenders, and with no training camp it will take some time to get that timing where they want it. I expect them to get better in their own zone with more game action.
- Justin Schultz has been better than I expected in his own end. He clearly has loads of offensive confidence, but he’s looked solid in his own zone. Playing with a veteran like Nick Schultz helps. The senior Schultz is rarely out of position, and outside of one brutal pass at the offensive blueline, he rarely makes bad decisions.
- I watched Oil Change last night and it was too bad they had to squeeze six months into one episode. Aquila Productions had to make some tough decisions on what to take out, and I was told there was some interesting stuff from the draft that got left on the cutting room floor. Too bad. Another casualty of the lockout.
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Without Smith the Oilers PP continues to produce as they win 4-2. Nugent-Hopkins become 8th Oiler to score and then Hartikainen becomes the 9th.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Ales Hemsky has a goal and as assist. Hemsky has 34 career points in 29 games v. the Coyotes. He lights them up more than any team other than the lowly Blue Jackets.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: Gene Principe will do numerous stand up hits from the stands tonight. The Coyotes will ask him and his camera man to watch the game from the stands to make the arena look fuller. Gene will end up crushing three hot dogs, and accidently spill some mustard on his suit. So for his final hit, he will do it with one of the Coyotes dance team so all the viewers will focus on her and not his suit. Veteran move.