Thursday night’s game against San Jose was thoroughly enjoyable – both teams played very well, there were numerous chances (and solid goaltending) at both ends, and for Oilers fans the fact that their team was able to force a shootout on the second night of back-to-back games against a very good Sharks team was an exceptional outcome.
The shift I have chosen to highlight was not a key one in the game – in fact, it did not even result in a scoring chance for either side – but I do think it’s one reflective of the effort the Oilers put in.
We start with Nail Yakupov (64 for Edmonton) in possession of the puck. He’s just taken a pass but he wasn’t really in flight at the time so he doesn’t have the speed to beat Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44 for San Jose) into the zone. Both Sam Gagner (89 for Edmonton) and Justin Schultz (19 for Edmonton) are back of the play so he doesn’t really have a pass option, either. Probably better than 90% of the time, the next move is obvious – dump the puck in hard and chase it down.
Yakupov decides to be more creative than that, however – he holds up and suddenly has a bunch of options.
Yakupov makes the pass to Hemsky (83 for the Oilers). Now, instead of a low percentage chip-and-chase play, the Oilers have possession and three guys on the centre-left (Hemsky, Gagner and Schultz the younger) with only Brad Stuart (7 for San Jose) lined up against them and Vlasic moving hard to get back into the play.
The Sharks are in decent position to defend, but are outnumbered in the zone by an Oilers’ team with possession.
Hemsky goes to the net with a nice move and almost beats Stuart, but Stuart gives him enough a shove that he loses his footing. Now Stuart is in good position to take possession behind the net.
Stuart does indeed get possession – Hemsky tries to get his stick on it from the ice but he isn’t in any position to out-muscle Stuart – and skates away. Sam Gagner, however, interjects himself between Stuart and the puck with a hit that’s low on flash and long on substance.
The puck comes free, but a mob races for the puck, and Gagner’s stuck trying to win a puck battle against Stuart, Scott Gomez and Logan Couture (7, 23 and 39 for San Jose, respectively).
Unsurprisingly, Couture emerges from the pack with the puck. At this point Ales Hemsky steps in, rubbing Couture out along the boards.
Now Gomez steps in, and he has position on Hemsky but Hemsky isn’t about to make it easy for him – the two tangle along the boards while Yakupov and the unfortunately named Ryane Clowe (29 for San Jose) watch.
Gomez wins the battle, Couture takes the puck and flips it out – but Yakupov has moved in along the boards and will block the attempt to clear the zone.
Yakupov fights for the puck with three Sharks around him, but manages to get possession and reverse it along the boards past Gomez.
Stuart deserves credit for being in good position, however – no sooner does Hemsky get the puck than Stuart shoves him hard into the boards.
Finally: three Sharks surround the puck, and only Ales Hemsky is close to it.
But as Hemsky and Gagner pressure, Stuart only manages to weakly push the puck towards the high slot.
Unsurprisingly, Yakupov is all over the loose puck.
Yakupov fires from the high slot, but Vlasic is able to get in front of the puck and block the shot.
Gagner manages to get to the loose puck before Vlasic can.
Gagner fires a blind backhand pass into the slot; Hemsky manages to stop it but it’s in his skates so he can’t get a quick shot away from point-blank range.
Hemsky can’t control the puck in his skates, and Couture takes it and skates it out.
Couture makes a quick pass to Gomez, who finally gains his own blue line with the puck.
Despite the fact that this shift didn’t result in a scoring chance – or even a shot through to net, as Yakupov’s lone attempt was blocked – I thought it was a worthwhile one to highlight because it showed the hard work of a line known more for skill. Not that skill wasn’t on display – Yakupov made a move in gaining the zone that the vast majority of players simply would not have made and Hemsky’s slick little move almost got him past Stuart – but most of this shift was hard work. Gagner hit Stuart behind the net, Hemsky hit Couture on the side boards, and those two as well as Yakupov fought tough battle for possession along the sideboards and in front of/behind the net.
In this instance, the hard work didn’t pay off. Lots of times, however, it will.