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Transition game — three vignettes from Darnell Nurse's "quiet" road trip – Edmonton Journal

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Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse always seems to be under the microscope, and that trend has continued into the 2021-22 season in the wake of the big defender signing an 8-year, $74-million extension over the summer. A ferocious competitor gifted with size, speed, and skill, Nurse has always had his share of critics. Nowadays he is frequently referenced as “our $9 million d-man”, often with a tinge of disdain in the voice of the speaker or the context of the writer. Never mind the fact that for one more season before that extension kicks in, Nurse has a cap hit of $5.6 million and appears highly likely to deliver excellent value yet again.

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As he has for the last four seasons at least, in which he has:

  • played every game
  • led the team in total ice time and average even-strength ice time in each season
  • led the blueline in even-strength goals, assists, and points every season. Indeed, Nurse’s lowest output of the four — 26 even strength points in 2017-18 — was higher than any other Oiler D over the entire span, that being Tyson Barrie’s 25 EVP last season. No other rearguard even hit 20.
  • ranked in the top 8 of NHL blueliners in even-strength minutes, goals and points over the four years combined.
  • carried a cap hit of $0.863 million, $3.2 million, $3.2 million, and $5.6 million.  A strong case can be made that he comfortably covered the bet in all four of those seasons.

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But that was then; this is now. What has he done for the Oilers lately?

By the boxcars it’s been  a quiet enough start, with 5 GP, 0-3-3, +4 to this point. Dig a little deeper, and we find a workhorse who leads the entire NHL in Time On Ice per game and (by a wider margin) in Hits . This on an Oilers team that is down several of their most physical players from last season including Adam Larsson , Jujhar Khaira and Josh Archibald . In their absence Nurse has come out banging, landing 8 hits in three different games and 4 each in the other two. Through all of that ice time and all of those battles, he has taken just one minor penalty through five games.

To these eyes the 26-year-old continues to improve at some of the more subtle aspects of the game. Cases in point, the following three sequences in which Nurse played a critical role in an important Oilers goal. All three from the recent road trip in which he officially got zero (0) points. Just don’t say he didn’t contribute to the offence, and specifically to Edmonton’s increasingly deadly transition game. All this while himself making a challenging transition to a new partner !

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As we did in last week’s popular post micro-analyzing a superb goal by Jesse Puljujarvi , let’s “roll back the tape” and engage the screen grab function. In each case we will focus on the change of possession that preceded the goal — which is to say much earlier in the sequence than the typical highlight reel will show. But what happens at that moment, and in the ~second that follows, often sets the stage for the good stuff that happens later. To wit:

Goal #1: Shorthanded game winner at Arizona

  • Darnell Nurse (circled) is at the point of attack, where the Coyotes shooter has whiffed on his shot and gone down to the ice. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins collects the loose puck in the low slot while Zach Hyman looks on from the top of the circle.

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  • As RNH turns with the puck, Hyman puts it into gear and heads up-ice. Behind him Nurse negotiates the traffic.

  • Nuge retreats toward the corner with three Arizona players fixated on the puck. A fourth has just regained his footing on the weak side. Seeing the chance, Nurse joins the lane fifteen feet behind behind Hyman.

  • Now out of frame, Nugent-Hopkins has beaten all four Coyotes with a gorgeous soft dump off the wall and into the path of the streaking Hyman. Nurse surges up the middle to make it a 2-on-1.

  • Seeing the danger, the remaining Arizona defender steps towards the middle of the ice to defend the pass opening a lane for Hyman to take the puck directly to the net.

  • …and cashes with a fine shot from inside the faceoff dot. Nurse never touches the puck from first to last, but his recognition of the opportunity and his plus skating have aided Hyman greatly. Officially, though, the scoring play is Hyman from Nugent-Hopkins, and a well-deserved point for each. Nurse? +1 and thanks for coming.

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Goal #2: Game-tying goal at Vegas

  • One of the responsibilities that comes with playing a lot with Connor McDavid and company is scenes like this. The Golden Knights’ top (healthy) line counterattacks 3-on-2 with the Oilers forwards all chasing the play. Nurse and his new partner Evan Bouchard gap up and play their angles as the Vegans hit the blueline.

  • Suddenly the gap closes as Nurse stops up, extends and attacks the puck, chipping it off the stick of William Karlsson.

  • The puck springs to the left, where Bouchard alertly gets a touch on it as well to tip it beyond the line of attackers…

  •  …where McDavid pounces on it and makes the turn with numbers on his side. Oil fans will recognize this frame as the money shot…

  • …even as it takes another few seconds for the sequence to play out. Once again it’s Hyman with the finishing nail after a short but intense pressure where Oilers buzzed the net and Knights played chase. By now Nurse is an interested bystander out at the point, his damage already done a dozen seconds earlier and 140 feet away.

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Goal #3: Go-ahead goal at Vegas

  • Just over a minute after the start of the prior sequence, the Nurse-Bouchard duo is still on the ice, having played an effective shift with the Derek Ryan line in between times, in which Nurse generated a decent shot. Now the Leon Draisaitl line has taken to the ice, has exerted some pressure but the puck has gone the other way. Both Nuge and Drai are in decent position and moving their feet, so there’s no odd-man aspect to this rush.

  • Bouchard is beaten by a pass into the middle of the ice, but Nurse gaps up and reads the play…

  • … assumes the “ready” position…

  • …and again extends to get stick-on-puck.

  • As Nurse retreats right out of the frame, the puck bounces off a couple of bodies in the neutral zone before being collected by Draisaitl…

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  • …who spins the other way in full possession, a breaking Kailer Yamamoto providing a target for the lead pass.

  • Fast forward again to the finishing nail, delivered by a kneeling Draisaitl some 20 seconds after the initial change of possession, but with the Oilers again in the ascendant the entire time. By this time Nurse has made the change after a superb 77-second shift and is sitting on the bench while his replacement, Kris Russell, contributes to the eventual scoring play. Not so much as a plus for Darnell on this one, even as his well-timed “defensive stick” has freed the puck to skilled mates for a second straight goal.

___

Three important goals over two games, with Nurse making key contributions to each. Just two touches, both at full stretch on his own side of centre, and a third great decision made from deep in his own territory to join the attack even as he ultimately played the role of decoy. Three subtle plays, three happy endings, with more than a little help from his friends. It is, after all, a team game.

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It’s my observation that Nurse does a lot of this sort of thing over the course of a game, and has learned/is learning to pick his spots better by the year. With his superb athleticism, he wins puck battles in a variety of ways: by simply winning a race to it, by overpowering an opponent, or through judicious use of his long reach. And while not featured in these sequences, he’s increasingly dangerous with the puck on his own blade.

Yes he still makes the wrong decision at times. There was that one play in the Calgary game where he got pulled behind the goal line and was beaten by a centring pass that was quickly deposited. Heard plenty about that one, but it remains the only powerplay goal scored on his watch in 17 shorthanded minutes. Meanwhile, in just 6 minutes he’s been on the PP, that unit has scored 4 times.

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In all situations — which in his case means literally ALL situations with a heaping helping of crunch time — Darnell has been on the ice for 12 goals scored by the Oilers, just 5 against.

Best of all, I’ve yet to see a sign that he’s reached his ceiling just yet. Now an impact player in his seventh NHL season, Nurse continues to upgrade the fine details of his considerable game.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Is Nurse-Bouchard the top pairing of Oil fans’ dreams?

LEAVINS: Together the Oilers can win — 9 Things

McCURDY: Oilers score a pulsating win in Sin City

STAPLES: Nurse dominates, Oilers flatten Coyotes

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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Flames open road trip with win for Sutter against his former team – Sportsnet.ca

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LOS ANGELES — Sitting in the bowels of a Staples Center arena in which he raised two Stanley Cups, Darryl Sutter was asked about the drive to win another one.

“It’s, like, all that matters to me,” said the Flames’ singularly-focused coach. “You’re trying to translate that to the players, to get to that level that it takes. And the difference it makes in a career and their lives.”

The difference Sutter helped make in Los Angeles was recognized seven minutes into Thursday’s Flames win when he and Trevor Lewis were saluted in a Jumbotron video that drew a standing ovation from a sparse crowd of 13,241.

Guiding the Kings to the franchise’s first Cup win in his first season as their head coach in 2012, Sutter became just the 19th coach in NHL lore to win multiple titles when he won again in 2014.

He’s had a similar, early impact in Calgary where his Flames continue to be the talk of the league, improving their record to a best-in-the-west 14-4-5 with a 3-2 win over his former team.

He wouldn’t say it afterward, but you can bet it meant just a little bit more for him to see his club win one at Staples.

“Some of the players that went through here before told me they probably would,” shrugged Sutter of the video. “It’s good. Good for Trevor, and good for my family.”

Although he did his best to downplay it before and afterwards, this game was important to Sutter.

And the players knew it.

“We wanted to win it for our coach, we wanted to win it for Lewis and his return, and we wanted to get our first win in our division,” said Milan Lucic, whose second power play unit played a big role in the win, with two first period goals.

“Those are all important things for us tonight. It’s always nice to start a four-game trip off in the win column.”

Lucic went five-hole for the fourth time this season to put the Flames up 2-1 in a first period that also saw Andrew Mangiapane score with the man advantage.

“I looked up and saw defence and went back to it — it’s a high percentage shot,” said a smiling Lucic of the between-the-wickets shot that has helped him score the majority of his seven goals.

“If it misses it hits the pads and stays alive, as opposed to a shot in the glove. It seems to be working out. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’d love to tell you how I set it up, but I don’t want the goalies to know what my thought process is. So we’ll just leave it at that.”

Not surprisingly, Lucic got the starting nod alongside fellow Kings alumni Lewis and Brad Richardson as part of Sutter’s gritty All the King’s Men Line.

“My buddies call us the Full Pension Line, which I thought was funny,” laughed Lewis of a nickname offered up by childhood friend and former Flame, Shane O’Brien.

“But whatever you guys want to call it.”

An Alex Iafallo redirection gave the opposition the opening goal for just the fifth time in 23 games — and first on the road — five minutes in.

Mangiapane responded with his 16th before Lucic struck.

Minutes after taking the lead Matthew Tkachuk did his best to resurrect his feud with Drew Doughty with a gritty shift on which he knocked the Kings defender down with a reverse hit before punctuating the whistle with a pair of net-side punches to Doughty’s face.

The second poke drew a penalty the Flames killed off as part of yet another perfect night that saw the unit stop both of L.A.’s man advantages.

Even scoreboard urging from Snoop Dogg couldn’t spur on the Kings.

Tkachuk wound up with the last laugh as he used Doughty as a screen to score his 11th of the season — a top-shelf beauty that stood as the winner early in the second.

“Whoever the defenceman was on that side I just tried to shoot it through him, and it worked out,” said Tkachuk. “I’m sure if you asked (Sutter) he wouldn’t want us to be extra motivated for him. He’d say he wanted us to come in here and get off on this road trip on the right foot and don’t worry about his homecoming. But it was big to get them the win.”

Alexander Edler’s first as a King narrowed the gap late in the second, setting up a third period push that saw Lewis make a key block after Jacob Markstrom made a stunning glove save on Victor Arvidsson’s point blast — one of 40 saves on the night.

The Flames play in Anaheim Friday as part of a four-game road trip that takes them through Vegas and San Jose.

“I think it’s really good for our team, and it’s another measuring stick to see where you are at when you get into the division part of it,” said Sutter before the game when asked about the trip against division rivals.

“This trip there are two we haven’t played and two we haven’t beaten.”

Make that one they haven’t beaten.

NOTES: The Flames sent Juuso Valimaki to Stockton to get some much-needed playing time, as the 23-year-old first-rounder has only been used in eight of the team’s 23 games this season.

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Prediction Time: CFL.ca writers' Div Finals picks – CFL.ca

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TORONTO — The anticipation is building by the day as we get closer to our Eastern and Western Division Finals on Sunday.

A pair of longtime rivals are the final four teams standing and on Sunday we’ll find out which of those two make it to the 108th Grey Cup next week in Hamilton.

If you’re looking for sound, stable and successful advice, look no further than our Jamie Nye. Tied for first-place with Pat Steinberg with a 39-26 record, Jamie was the only one of the six CFL.ca writers that went 2-0 last week, wisely taking the Ticats and Riders to hold court at home. This week they’re both on the road, heading into Toronto and Winnipeg, respectively, to take on the first place Argos and Bombers.

Home field didn’t carry quite as much weight in the East with the pick-makers as it did in the West this week, despite the Argos’ 6-1 record at BMO Field. Just about everyone is on board with the Bombers hosting at IG Field, a place where they haven’t had the taste of defeat all season. The last time the Bombers lost at home was Sept. 27, 2019. That Week 16 loss to Hamilton came a couple of weeks before the Bombers traded for Zach Collaros.

The Riders have a hill to climb this week and they seem to recognize that. The Ticats have a hill of their own, having dropped three of their four meetings with the Argos this season, including their Week 15 encounter that clinched first in the East for the Double Blue.

We’re just days away from having answers and knowing who will be playing for the Grey Cup, setting up a true Sunday Funday.

RELATED
» Head to Head: Who has the edge in the Eastern and Western Finals?
» CFL Pick ‘Em: Make your picks for the divisional finals!
» Weekly Predictor: Betting on the Ticats

HAM at TOR

The Argos might have one of the most underappreciated home field records in recent league history. Standing at an impressive 6-1 — the blemish coming in a meaningless end-of-season tilt with Edmonton — they won’t be an easy out at BMO Field. There’s pressure on each side to win of course, but there’s a little more on the Ticats, who beat the Argos in their first meeting on Labour Day, then dropped their next three meetings, with encounters No. 2 and 3 being one-point losses. Still, the majority of our pick makers think the Ticats can do it, coming off of a convincing win over Montreal last week. A traveling pack of supporters making the trip up the QEW might help pack the stands on Sunday and will try to even out that home field advantage.

PICK

Writers 66% Hamilton

SSK at WPG

The Riders get one last crack at the blue and gold riddle they haven’t been able to solve on Sunday afternoon. This edition of the Bombers might stand as one of the franchise’s all-time great teams, led by a defence that feasts on turnovers and miscues, and is steered on offence by Zach Collaros‘ calm and deliberate style of play. The defending Grey Cup champs come into this game as rested as can be, will have the support of a packed IG Field and have been focused on the next game in front of them since we kicked the season off back in August. The Riders will likely have to be close to perfect to take them down. Going into the game, it feels like a very tall order.

PICK

Writers 83% Winnipeg

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Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo misses game vs. Raptors for undisclosed reason – Sportsnet.ca

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Giannis Antetokounmpo was scratched from the Milwaukee Bucks‘ lineup against the Toronto Raptors for an undisclosed reason.

Antetokounmpo was not among the Bucks’ starters ahead of tipoff. Pat Connaughton was moved into his place in the starting lineup against the Raptors.

The 26-year-old is coming off a dominant performance against the Charlotte Hornets where he had 40 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a 127-125 victory. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 6.0 assists through 21 games this season.

Milwaukee’s next game is on Saturday against the Miami Heat.

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