A big hit and a great fourth line shift

It was a bizarre game last night, in a lot of ways. Both teams had power plays that were given a lot of rope by some extremely giving referees, and until Gagner scored on a 4-on-3 in overtime both teams were wildly ineffective on the man advantage. The goalies were superb. I really didn’t want to go back and review the refereeing again; seeing it once was enough (for me, and for both teams judging by their reactions).

Instead, I thought I’d highlight one of Mark Fistric’s big hits and how it impacted one shift.

The play starts in the Kings’ end of the ice. Two Oilers are deep, and all five Kings are in the defensive zone; Brad Richardson (15 for Los Angeles) has the puck. Jordan Eberle (14 for Edmonton) is watching from the point but can feel safe to engage, because there are two of his teammates behind him and no opponents.

Eberle engages, but Richardson sticks close to the boards – he gets the puck ahead and is in good shape to squeak through the check.

Linemate Jordan Nolan (71 for Los Angeles) picks up the puck. Mark Fistric (45 for Edmonton) sees it and has him lined up. Fistric isn’t known for letting opportunities to throw a hit go by, and besides that Nolan has had a target on him ever since he leveled Eberle (cleanly) in the first period – he fought Ladislav Smid and has already been hammered by Fistric once.

Fistric levels Nolan, something that should take both guys out of the play for a moment. Now there’s a loose puck sliding toward the Oilers zone, and a race is shaping up between Richardson and Ryan Whitney (6 for Edmonton).

As it starts off, the importance of Whitney winning this race and coming away with possession becomes clear. The Fistric hit didn’t work out quite as planned because Nolan managed to get himself out ahead of Fistric on the play. Behind them, Eberle and Colin Fraser (24 for Los Angeles) are roughly an equal distance away from helping out while Slava Voynov (25 for Los Angeles) could make things very difficult for the Oilers if he jumps into the play.

Whitney beats Richardson to the puck, but Richardson has made up a lot of space.

Since Richardson can’t have the puck, he settles for the next best thing – pushing Whitney off it and essentially making the race a draw. The problem with a draw is that Nolan recovered from the Fistric hit faster than Fistric did, so a draw favours the Kings.

Nolan collects the puck. Fistric is skating back into the play and Eberle is racing to the slot with an eye on the puck-carrier. Off-camera and further to Eberle’s right, Colin Fraser is also racing along as fast as he can.

Fraser takes the cross-ice pass. Eberle hasn’t stayed on him entering the zone, settling on trying to get to the slot as quickly as he can, which leaves Fraser with time and space at point blank range.

Fortunately for the Oilers, this is the Kings’ fourth line, and Colin Fraser isn’t Anze Kopitar or Jeff Carter or Justin Williams or Dustin Brown. Dubnyk makes a great save on a good Kings scoring chance.

The point here isn’t to blast anybody, least of all Fistric for throwing the big hit. After all a big part of the reason Fistric is around is to do things like that, and because Nolan had tagged Eberle earlier there was extra incentive, besides which he knew his defence partner was behind him. Too, if Nolan hadn’t been able to recover so quickly (Nolan enjoyed a superb game, actually, with an impact far out of proportion to the 5:30 he played on the night), this would not have been a problem.

Eberle might be criticized for not sticking to Fraser, but my suspicion is that Voynov was hanging back in the high slot area – off camera but close enough to get back into the play in a hurry. With two guys on the far side of the ice, Eberle is in a tough spot. He probably should have been a little closer to the net than he was but because we can’t see exactly where Voynov is on the play it is difficult to be too critical there. Where Eberle could have been better was back at the Kings’ blue line, since both Richardson and the puck got past him.

The biggest problem on this play is Whitney’s speed. Watching him this year, it seems clear that he isn’t going to get back to the level of skating he once was at, and this is one of those situations where there was a lot of pressure on him to win a footrace. He didn’t win it cleanly, and he wasn’t able to even softly push the puck around to the far corner, which would have allowed the Oilers time to regroup. I’m honestly not sure what Whitney can do; he won’t win every puck battle and he isn’t likely to get faster – this just seems like a situation that’s going to happen from time to time.

Mostly, though, this was just a really nice shift for a depth line on the other team. Richardson is tenacious (a quality he also showed in last year’s playoffs), Nolan took a big hit but was back on his feet and in the play in a flash, and Fraser made for open ice just as fast as he could. Speed and grit allowed Richardson to beat Eberle and Whitney, and Nolan to outlast Fistric; it was a good example of exactly what a fourth line is supposed to do, particularly since the Oilers’ problems were less a bunch of glaring errors and more a defenceman who has lost some speed and another that saw the opportunity for a big hit and took it.

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