Sunday, November 16, 2008

One Of Those Days

I play hockey year round for a club called Capsule Music. This is my fifth season and its been the most fun I have ever had playing hockey. Now, I'm not a big guy and age has pretty well taken care of what little speed I had. I don't have the big shot and score nearly every one of my goals from a couple of feet out or as the result of the puck hitting someone and taking a crazy bounce. Yet I'm the type of guy that the numbers guys would love. Generally even or an outscorer even when clearly outmatched on paper. Get the puck deep every time. Rarely caught out of position. Good playmaker. Increasingly hard to play against - I've realized that when I get my nose dirty early I tend to play very well so that has been the route I have taken.

We're the oldest club in every league we play in. Everyone but two guys is on the wrong side of forty with our first guy just hitting forty five. We're slow as hell. We don't have any great player who can score at will or take over a game. Yet, strangely enough, we are getting ... better. Four seasons ago (my second year) we had our best season. Second overall and a one goal loss in the deciding game of the semifinals. We had five good defencemen and some skill up front and while we tended to be a little soft and a little dumb we were quality.

The next season we had lost three of those five defencemen, two moved and the third had his third kid, and the end result was a poor one. Our D was a shambles, we were still soft and a little dumb, and we sank almost right to the bottom of our league. When we lost one of those two remaining Dmen and one of our best allround forwards that summer, again both of them moving, it looked like the slide out of competitive hockey was about to accelerate rapidly.

Something funny happened though. We picked up a lumbering defenceman who has played on the backend all is life. Not a great skater but your man is always in position, he's a prick and he has a low hard shot that is always on net. We also added a big fellow up front. He's slowed some from his halycon days but he's hard to play against and can put the puck into the net. Two good additions but the biggest change came from within. Suddenly we were harder on the puck and showed the smarts that our experience should have given us. A lot fewer dumb plays, a lot of good simple ones and we ended up with a decent season last year that included a playoff round won and elimination in overtime of the deciding game by a far more skilled club that finished second overall. In the end it was desperation that saved us. Soft dumb play ended up in us getting slaughtered. So it was time to keep it simple and bear down. Even old dogs can learn new tricks, apparently.

And this season? Well due to a quirky schedule we haven't played any softies yet and went into our Saturday game against the first place club who sported a gaudy 5 and 0 record. We were at 2-2-1 with one of our losses being a complete dismantling against this same team, a game where we dressed someone's buddy (I kid you not) to play betwen the pipes. When the first shot from the neutral zone drifted into the net the rout immediately became on.

So Saturday they come out flying and our goalie misplayed one on the first shift and so we were down. They are young and fast and skilled and we are none of those things. We tied it but then they potted two more and things looked ugly. They were pretty free about laying the body (on top of everything we're not very big) and I'm sure they felt they were about to run us out of the rink.

And then we pushed back. Their forwards were jailbreaking before their D got the puck and our guys were winning the puck along the boards and meeting their elbows with shots of our own. We pulled within one and the rink began to tilt in our favour. We choked off their attack with simple positioning until they scored another softie with seven minutes left.

All we did then was hem them in until we scored from a foot out with five minutes left. And then killed a penalty to bring it down to two minutes left. All over them and everyone knew it was coming and the puck in their net with thirty seconds left. And then back in again and a flurry and if the game had lasted twenty seconds more it would have been ours. The look on their faces as they shook hands with a bunch of balding, greying creaky old men who had given back as good as they got was worth the welts and aches - the arrogance knocked out of them by simple hard work, toughness and four goals that travelled a total of six feet, if that.


Now I'm not saying smarts and effort will do it every time. We play in a summer league as well and a few guys take the summer off so we start at a disadvantage. Playing smart and hard last summer didn't help us one bit when one of the other teams featured two centres around twenty one years old who could basically score at will. It didn't help the Oilers much back at the turn of the century either.

But then you look at last night's game and two stories that came out of it, both related to one player, Dustin Penner.

The guy who replaced him in the lineup, Reddox, played fourteen plus minutes at ES and on the PK. He scored a goal. He fit right in, for one night at least. He certainly did not look like a kid playing his second NHL game.

The guy who Penner replaced on the Oilers, Ryan Smyth, scored a goal and was in Roloson's face when the Avs tied it up at game's end. He was a going concern all night, battling along the boards and in front of the net, breaking up Oiler chances, playing a terrific two way game, just like the hundreds of games he played for the Oilers.

Penner was in the pressbox.

Lets face it, the Oilers have been no hell so far this season. They have been up and down and a lot of the problems have been attributed to youth. The lines have been juggled and a lot of guys are not playing great. Penner is not the only one.

But he's the most glaring example of a lethargy that seems to have gripped this team and unlike a lot of guys who are struggling he has not been playing out of position (Pisani, Cole), he's not recovering from a major injury (Horcoff), he's not a teenager or barely that (Gagner, Cogliano). He is a big man who plays small, a scorer who is not scoring, the highest paid forward on the club who after the first game of the year had scored a single goal in the next fifteen.

For another day - why it took the benching of two regulars to suddenly produce a sixty minute effort from everyone.

The PP produced chances and the PK did a fine job, notwithstanding the final result. Tom Gilbert looks like Tom Gilbert. The D held up pretty well against a nice group of Avs' forwards. Cogliano and Cole looked like Cogliano and Cole.

Unfortunately people will remember this game for Nilsson's flubbed penalty shot, Horcoff's gaffe on the EN and Pisani sitting in the box when the tying goal was scored because all three had great games, imo.

So that's good news and so is the fact that Liam Reddox looks like he may be able to play in the NHL, another product of the Oilers' system. Suddenly the Oilers seem to have a plethora of options up front, guys who can actually play hockey.

We'll see if MacT continues to go to the whip. If the Oilers play like they did last night, smart and hard, they will win a lot of games. If this team falls back again, I would say he has to, because as a fan I look at the effort last night and wonder where that has been and why we don't see that on a nightly basis.

As for Dustin Penner, I don't have anything against the guy. I hope that this is the wakeup call that finally gets his ass in gear. He seems to have gotten a free pass last year but it looks like those days are over. Its about time.

Hard and smart would be a beginning. Its amazing what that can accomplish.


Anonymous said...

Awesome post

R-Gib said...

Yup great read BDHS. There is a lot to be said for working your ass off, skilled or not. I agree that this is mostly what has been missing this season. Would sure be nice to roll 4 hard-working lines, wouldn't it?

I seem to recall Moreau in the box tho, not Pisani?

Black Dog said...

r-gib - both of them actually