Game Day 37: Oilers vs Flames
Update: Today’s line-up as per Jack Michaels of the Oilers:
A lot has transpired in just two and a half weeks:
Such a unique set of circumstances makes it hard to know what to expect from the game tonight, especially knowing the Senators also haven’t played since December 18 and are down quite a few bodies. It’s more than just a couple of weeks without games; there was a full week without practice time in there as well, which could make for sloppy hockey tonight. No fans in the stands will also have its effect.
As far as the lineup goes, the players who most recently exited protocol and returned to practice — William Nylander, Jake Muzzin, and Morgan Rielly — are all considered game-time decisions. It appears as though Nylander and Rielly will play and Muzzin will not, but it remains to be seen what the final determinations are by the medical staff. As for Marner and Sandin, both will see their first game action since December 1 and December 5, respectively.
The major boost at 5v5 and on the penalty kill Marner provides requires no explanation, but it will be interesting to see how it might change the dynamic on the top power-play unit (assuming he is immediately reinserted there). The Leafs went a remarkable 11 for 21 (52.4%) during his absence — more than 15% clear of the next best power play in the month of December. They were also top three in the league in the month of November (29.7%) with Marner in the mix, to be fair to him, but it was hard to ignore the benefit of major shot threats on both flanks of the ice.
Sheldon Keefe on the challenge of getting back into game mode:
You just have to be really mindful and aware — extra focused on your habits and your details. Those are the kinds of things that take a while to get going. You have to get in a groove in games with your habits. We have tried to really harp on that through our practices. We feel like we have had some really good practices here, especially over the last few days. The team very much looks ready to play a game.
We are going to have to work our way back into it. We have the extra layer tonight with having an empty arena. It is another way you have to be focused on your own and be ready to execute. You can’t rely on the energy and the atmosphere. We have to get back into that mindset we had to have last season.
Keefe on the excitement among the team to be returning to game action at the SBA:
A lot of excitement. It is different. We don’t spend a lot of time in this facility unless we are playing on a game day. It has been a while since we have been here. It is a different part of your routine coming in and making your way down here. It is a different environment and the facility is much different.
Lots of excitement. That is why I like the fact that we use this building only for games. You come in here, and you know it is game day. With that, it brings a level of excitement that you are bringing back at it.
DJ Smith on Brannstrom and Thompson entering the lineup with the absences on the Senators’ blue line:
Branny [and Lassi Thompson] will play tonight. Toronto has a full lineup. They have everyone back. It is a perfect time for these young guys to go in there and play against one of the league’s best teams. Let’s see what they got.
Smith’s reflections on 2021 for the Ottawa Senators:
It was crazy with the no fans, the shortened season, the positive tests, and all of the things. Looking forward, with where the Ottawa Senators are as an organization when we are healthy, the young guys have come along — the Drake Bathersons, the Josh Norris’, the Tkachuks, the Stutzles. Especially the guys up front, they have now [established] themselves as real NHL players.
2022 brings continued growth amongst all of these guys. I think you are going to see the Ottawa Senators turn the corner.
#58 Michael Bunting – #34 Auston Matthews – #16 Mitch Marner
#15 Alex Kerfoot – #91 John Tavares – #88 William Nylander
#65 Ilya Mikheyev – #64 David Kampf – #25 Ondrej Kase
#47 Pierre Engvall – #19 Jason Spezza – #24 Wayne Simmonds
#44 Morgan Rielly – #78 TJ Brodie
#38 Rasmus Sandin – #3 Justin Holl
#23 Travis Dermott – #33 Alex Biega
Starter: #36 Jack Campbell
#35 Petr Mrazek
Extras: Nick Ritchie, Jake Muzzin
COVID-19 protocol: Timothy Liljegren
#7 Brady Tkachuk – #18 Tim Stutzle – #19 Drake Batherson
#10 Alex Formenton – #71 Chris Tierney – #28 Connor Brown
#13 Zach Sanford – #27 Dylan Gambrell – #16 Auston Watson
#62 Clark Bishop – #17 Adam Gaudette – #20 Logan Shaw
#72 Thomas Chabot – #60 Lassi Thompson
#5 Nick Holden – #2 Artem Zub
#26 Erik Brannstrom – #98 Victor Mete
Starter: #30 Matt Murray
#32 Filip Gustavsson
Injured/Out: Colin White, Shane Pinto, Josh Brown
COVID-19 protocol: Anton Forsberg, Josh Norris, Tyler Ennis, Nick Paul, Dillon Heatherington
On Friday night, the Vancouver Canucks showed exactly why it is so difficult to predict the outcome of a single hockey game.
On paper, the Florida Panthers should have dominated this game. Sure, they had just played the night before and were missing one of their top forwards, Sam Bennett, to injury. But they’re also the highest-scoring team in the NHL, with a deep bench that should’ve been able to easily absorb the loss of Bennett. They cruised to a 6-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers in their previous game and were able to limit the ice time of some of their best players to lessen the impact of games on back-to-back nights.
Besides, the Canucks’ lineup was a wreck.
With six players in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol, the Canucks were missing all three of their top-scoring forwards — J.T. Miller, Bo Horvat, and Conor Garland. More importantly, both Thatcher Demko and Jaroslav Halak were unavailable, forcing the Canucks to go to the farm for the third-string goaltender.
That goaltender was Spencer Martin, who last played in the NHL back in 2017. He played all of three games for the Colorado Avalanche and didn’t win any of them, posting an .865 save percentage.
Martin has been in the AHL ever since and never been particularly good. Even at just 26 years old, it must have seemed difficult to keep the dream of getting back to the NHL alive.
But then the Canucks traded for him. He joined the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL, where they already had two prospect goaltenders vying for time, Michael DiPietro and Arturs Silovs. But he worked with Canucks goaltending coaches Ian Clark and Curtis Sanford and gradually, as the season progressed, he outplayed both prospects, earning starts ahead of them.
“This organization is rich with goaltending prospects,” said Martin after the game. “To come in and join them and work with them, it was a good experience. I got some time at the beginning of the year where I wasn’t playing much to work with Clarky and Sandman in Abbotsford and that, I think, is a huge reason why I feel comfortable in the game now.”
So, when the Canucks needed a goaltender, they turned to the guy with a .921 save percentage in the AHL instead of one of their prospects with a sub-.900 save percentage.
“I just felt incredibly blessed,” said Martin after the game. “I know how hard it is to get to this level and how many experiences it takes to get opportunities…it felt incredible to get an opportunity.”
Martin came through.
On paper, this game looked like it should’ve been a blowout, but, against the most dangerous offensive team in the NHL, Martin stopped 33 of 34 shots to get the game to overtime and earn his team a point, then to the shootout to give them a chance to earn another one.
“I love when American League players that have played there for a while get opportunities and show what they can do,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, who spent a great deal of time in the AHL himself as a player. “There’s a lot of good players that get overlooked because of their age or for whatever reason and they’re really good players.
“So, for Spencer to come in and play a game like that against the highest-scoring team in the league, I thought it was really impressive.”
Indeed it was. I, for one, was impressed when I watched this game.
Update: Today’s line-up as per Jack Michaels of the Oilers:
Expected lineup vs CGY:
—Kassian not on ice
1. That means Kassian and Tyson Barrie are likely out, with Mike Smith, Zach Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins already out. That’s a lot of core players out.
2. This in from former NHL grinder Alan May, now a commentator on the Washington Capitals, speaking to Bob Stauffer on Oilers Now in regards to the Oilers: “”I’m seeing a team that doesn’t play with any physicality. I look last night at the players who got the hits up top, Tyler Benson and I think Devin Shore. You need to have more beef out there. Right now they look smallish. They look like a team that is sweep checking, poke checking, only checking the puck. It’s like they’re playing now to lose and therefore they are losing.
“I just think you’ve got to add some grit. … I’m not biased against small guys, but small guys to me have to the most noticeable, dominate players on the ice… I just think that those players have to be hungrier, faster, and I just don’t see enough right now out of the supporting cast.”
May had a kinder word for the Oilers goalie situation than you’ll hear in Edmonton, noting that when you don’t have a team playing hard in front of you, that puts immense pressure on the goalie. “If they let in one iffy goal, they’re done. That’s what is happening right now there. It doesn’t matter who is in net. If you got (ace Tampa goalie Andrei) Vasilevskiy, eventually he will lose his confidence.”
There are simply too many two-on-ones and high danger chances against Edmonton, May said.
“The depth guys have to be more desperate. Right now they look small, they look fragile, they’re not physical, they’re not checking the puck well.”
1. Hmmm. I think May has identified a major issue here but I don’t think he hit the nail on the head, especially with his comment on Edmonton’s goaltending. If Mike Smith this year was the Mike Smith of last year, Edmonton would be winning now.
2. It strikes me — and this is strictly from observation here, not from knowing anything about team dynamics — that Smith is the straw that stirs Edmonton’s drink. When he’s healthy and in the line-up, he dominates the game with his fiery mood, brilliant puckhandling and strong goaltending. The Oilers simply look like a different team when he’s playing, each guy growing a few inches and gaining ten pounds of muscle, each guy ready to hit harder, hustle harder and try to match Smith’s unmatchable intensity. Smith’s presence on the ice — at least if he can bring something close to his “A” game — helps immediately to solve the problem May references, the lack of physicality and forceful play. He can’t get back in the line-up soon enough, but it’s starting to look like his health really isn’t going to allow that this season. Hate to say it, but that’s how I size things.
3. As for the lack of hard-hitting and intense forwards, especially some with some size, yes, that’s a hole on the team, one of a number of holes, especially with big, tough Zach Hyman out of the line-up right now. When it comes to Oilers forwards who play a hard game, he’s at the top of that list, with Leon Draisaitl, Jesse Puljujarvi and Warren Foegele having their moments, and Tyler Benson, Colton Sceviour and Kailer Yamamoto doing OK for smaller players. But Devin Shore, Brendan Perlini, and Zack Kassian need to bring more. Ryan McLeod needs to mix it up more. Kyle Turris has already played his way out of the line-up in large part through lack of physical play and defensive intensity, but Shore, Kassian, Perlini, Derek Ryan and McLeod have got to bring more fire. If not, they’re on their way out too.
4. On defence, Duncan Keith has been playing better, but this is not a hard-hitting group. Tyson Barrie and Evan Bouchard aren’t hitters, nor is Slater Koekkoek. Darnell Nurse is, but hitting too much will wear him out. William Lagesson needed to play a more physical game, but failed to do so. Kris Russell brings grit but keeps getting hurt and in too many games isn’t the player he used to be. This group can move the puck OK, but it’s short on Big Bobby Clobbers.
5. The Oilers now rank seventh out of eight teams in the Pacific Division, ahead of only woeful Seattle. But due to Edmonton’s blistering start, the team is still at real .500, 18 wins and 18 losses in all situations. It hasn’t dipped into hopeless territory. It’s still got a chance to sort out this season and at least make the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine how that happens just now, but it’s almost impossible to fathom how a team that was the best in the NHL for the first 21 games has been the worst for the next 15. Who knows where this goes net?
LeBron James is back in Miami.
That’s the main headline ahead of Sunday night’s game in which James’ Los Angeles Lakers visit his former franchise, the Miami Heat.
James, 37, had the greatest run of his career in Miami, winning four MVP trophies (two regular season, two Finals) and two NBA titles in just four years.
On Friday, James showed he can still expand his game, playing center in the second half of the Lakers’ 116-105 win over the host Orlando Magic. James finished with a game-high 29 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists.
James’ 28.9 scoring average this season is his highest since 2009-2010, which was the year prior to him signing with Miami. His effective field-goal percentage of 58.5 is his best in four years.
“He’s the most unique player in the history of the game,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We won a championship with him playing point guard two years ago. He’s been a ball-handling wing throughout his career, and he has been playing center for us (lately). It’s remarkable, especially at this stage of his career.”
With Lakers center Anthony Davis out due to a sprained left knee, James — listed at 6-9 and 250 pounds — could be back at center on Sunday against Miami’s Bam Adebayo, 24.
Adebayo, listed at 6-9 and 255 pounds, is averaging 18.7 points and a team-high 10.0 rebounds. In three games since returning from right-thumb surgery that kept him out for six weeks, Adebayo is averaging 18.3 points and 8.7 rebounds.
“He’s playing at a high level, and it’s a testament to the hard work he’s put in,” teammate Duncan Robinson said of Adebayo. “There are not a lot of players who can do what he does, flying around and making an impact on both ends.”
Adebayo had a game-high 28 points to go with 10 rebounds the last time these two teams met, which was a 120-117 overtime victory for the host Lakers on Nov. 10.
James missed that game due to an abdominal injury. Miami star Jimmy Butler left the game in the first half due to a sprained ankle.
Fast forward two-plus months and both teams are still dealing with key absences. For Miami, point guard Kyle Lowry has missed three straight games due to personal reasons, and Tyler Herro has been absent two games since entering COVID-19 protocol. Lowry is fifth in the league in assists (8.3), and Herro is second on the Heat in scoring (20.7).
For the Lakers, Davis — who is averaging 23.3 points and a team-high 9.9 rebounds — hasn’t played since Dec. 17.
Davis’ injury helps explain why the Lakers have been consistently mediocre this season. They haven’t fallen further than two games under .500. But they have also haven’t been higher than three games over.500, and they enter Sunday right having split their 46 games (23-23).
Miami has had a much better first half of the season, primarily thanks to a 15-5 home record that is the best in the Eastern Conference. That home dominance has kept the Heat among the top three teams in the East.
For Heat fans, the beauty of the team has been the way coach Erik Spoelstra has been able to plug players in and continue to win.
For example, five players in the Heat rotation — Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, Omer Yurtseven and Dewayne Dedmon — combine to make less than $7.7 million, an incredible statistic in today’s high-priced NBA.
Then again, since the 1995-96 season, only two teams — the Lakers and Spurs — have won more playoff games than the Heat.
James, of course, has a lot to do with that success, which is why his arrival — although only for one night — figures to be the big story on Sunday.
–Field Level Media
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