“Even if you throw the three goals out, his physicality, his ability to keep plays alive, I thought he was tremendous. We’re lucky to have him at this time of the year. This is exactly what we brought him in for,” said Todd McLellan on Milan Lucic.
Lucic was a force in the biggest game of the season last night in San Jose.
Strong along the boards.
Natural hat trick.
And he did it on the road, against the defending Western Conference champions, with home ice advantage hanging in the balance. What a performance.
Lucic has looked much more comfortable the past month. He has eleven goals and 16 points in his last 20 games. Producing down the stretch, when the games are more intense and harder to play, is why Chiarelli signed Lucic to a seven-year deal. The deal might be an issue in the final two years, but Lucic’s experience and combination of skill and brute force is the reason Peter Chiarelli paid top dollar to sign him. He wanted a physical, skilled forward who would show up in big games, and complement his speedy, skilled players.
Lucic is suddenly tied for 56th in the NHL in goals. He had a good start to the season, scoring 7-12-19 in the first 25 games, then only 5-8-13 in his next 35 games, but he emerged from his slump at the perfect time for the Oilers. He now has 23 goals and 48 points. Lucic’s contributions won’t just be measured in goals and points because he has the physical ability to impact games in other ways.
Last night, with 3:34 remaining in the first period and the Oilers trailing 1-0, he crushed Chris Tierney with a clean hit. Moments later Micheal Haley, the Sharks tough guy, came at him and Lucic didn’t hesitate to drop the gloves. Lucic completely controlled the fight, drew a penalty in the process and on the ensuing power play the Oilers got some quality chances and woke up from a sluggish start. They had three shots on goal in the first 16:26 of the game.
In the third period, with the Oilers trailing 2-1, Lucic took over and scored the natural hat trick. He had a nice deflection on the first goal, used his size and strength to bang home a loose puck on the second and had good positioning on the third. He has had some really strong games this season versus St.Louis, Washington, Colorado and Calgary, but his play in the final 20 games and especially last night was why Chiarelli gave him big money and a long-term contract.
Lucic is still one of the premiere power forwards in the game, and his brute force allows the Oilers to not be pushed out of a physical game, while the skill of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl allows them to never be out of a fast-paced game. The Oilers finally have diversity throughout their lineup. They can play fast, they can play physical and they can play mean.
Last night Lucic’s combination of size, strength, toughness, skill and savvy was on full display.
- The Oilers only need one point in their final two games versus Vancouver to secure second place and home ice advantage in the first round. They can still finish in first place if they win both their games and the Ducks lose in regulation to Los Angeles on Sunday. If the Ducks pick up a point or the Oilers don’t sweep Vancouver then the Oilers and Sharks will meet for the second time in franchise history. That is the most likely matchup, but I doubt the Kings will just roll over and let their arch-rivals stroll into the playoffs. If Edmonton wins tomorrow, the Kings would love to play spoiler on Sunday. Which would be great, because if the Oilers catch the Ducks there is still a chance we could see the Battle of Alberta for the first time since 1991 if the Flames can stay ahead of the Nashville Predators.
- The Oilers allowed a season-low 15 shots on goal last night. For long stretches the Sharks created very little defensively. In the final 40 minutes, they only allowed seven EV shots against. They were excellent defensively.
- Cam Talbot set a new Oilers record for most wins in a season with 41. He has four shootout wins, so it is different than Fuhr’s 40 wins in 1988, but there is no denying Talbot has had a very strong campaign. I expect him to be a finalist for the Vezina along with Braden Holtby and Sergei Bobrovsky, who should win it.
- The evolution of Jordan Eberle’s game has been rather dramatic. He has improved immensely in the defensive zone and in the battle areas. He doesn’t get knocked off the puck so easily anymore and he’s much more reliable in his own end. You can tell he still isn’t as confident offensively as he has been in previous years, but I won’t be surprised to see him return to being a 25-goal scorer next season. His improved defensive play will help his offense, once he regains his offensive confidence. Over his first six seasons he averaged a 14.1SH%, but this year he’s plummeted to a 8.1%. If he was even a 10% shooter this year he’d have 20 goals. With his improved defensive awareness and increased competitiveness in battles, it will be easier for him to return to his usual offensive numbers because he’ll have the puck more.
- I’d play Laurent Brossoit in Vancouver tomorrow and Talbot at home on Sunday. He can have two days off, play a game, then have two days off again before the Oilers open the playoffs on Wednesday. I’d be surprised if they weren’t involved on the opening night of the 2017 playoffs.
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