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8:07 PM ET, 6/08/06
Quick changes needed for Oilers
Posted by Yi-Wyn Yen
After losing the first two games of the Stanley Cup finals to the Hurricanes, the Oilers returned to Rexall Place on Wednesday afternoon where they were greeted by dark, rain clouds and a fierce onslaught of reporters. After explaining for five minutes how the Oilers managed to get shut out 5-0 for the first time this postseason, center Michael Peca was thrown this doozey by a radio reporter. "Mike, you lost the Stanley Cup with Buffalo [in 1999], and another one is starting to slip away. What's going through your mind right now?" As if Peca didn't have enough to think about how his team will come back from a two-game deficit to avoid elimination, now he has to deal with really bad questions.
At the top of the Oilers' biggest hurdle is trying to figure out a way to get a puck past 22-year-old standout goaltender Cam Ward, who became the first rookie to post a shutout in the finals in two decades when he stopped all 25 attempts in Game 2. Forwards Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth and Peca -- each with five goals in the postseason -– have been held scoreless in the finals with 13 shots among them. "You can't get to a case where you're trying to be too gung ho and prove how physical you can be how," he said. "It all needs to be done in control. Carolina is going to pick you apart if you do that kind of stuff."
Frustrated by Carolina's relentless shot blocking, which ranked first in the regular season, Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said he thought Horcoff and Smyth had tried too hard to become "difference makers" in Game 2. Forced to dump the puck behind the net or off the end boards, the forwards have found the red jerseys to be an unnerving obstacle in the offensive zone. "We haven't got a lot of breaks in the series in front of net," MacTavish said. "We have to do some things tactically different. We have to devise a different game plan to make sure that we're freeing up some space and some unobstructed shooting lanes that we can get the pucks to the net. Their forwards have done a real good job stopping us. They collapse down low in their defensive zone….On the occasion that the puck does get through, it's been in pretty tight to Cam and we're having a hard time getting it up and over him."
Since their top goaltender Dwayne Roloson went out with a knee injury, Edmonton has failed to score at even strength in the last four periods. "I don't know if anybody planted some seeds of doubt or built excuses because Dwayne's out now ... but the task at times is going to be more difficult," Peca said. While the team doesn't blame backup Jussi Markkanen, who allowed five goals in his first game in three months, they'll need to find a way to turn around their game plan quickly. "We got caught in Game 2 running out of position which left pretty big holes in our system," said Jarret Stoll. "I think San Jose and Anaheim were more physical than Carolina. We have to got to pick our spots and play smarter on the ice."
Eric Staal arrived at the RBC Center for Game 2 in a dark black suit driving his silver BMW 700 series sedan. As a middle-aged fan wearing a Carolina jersey chased after his luxury sedan, the 21-year-old Hurricanes center, with one hand on the steering wheel, made a right turn into the players' parking lot.
Three hours later, Staal was weaving through traffic down the center lane of the rink with just as much confidence when he coolly set up the game-winning goal for Andrew Ladd, the youngest player in the finals. Says Staal, who leads the league with 22 points, "Laddie was a little ahead of me when I picked up [the puck], so I had to give it to him. It was a big goal for him."
With a 5-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 2, the Hurricanes are now just two shy from claiming the Stanley Cup, but they are far from sitting comfortably in the driver's seat. "If we breathe easy, we're going to be in a situation where San Jose was," said Hurricanes defenseman Aaron Ward. "The worst mistake you make is underestimate your opponent. I'm not saying San Jose did, but there is an obvious potential."
The Sharks lost in six games after winning the first two to Edmonton in the Western semifinals, and the Hurricanes are fully aware that the plucky Oilers can repeat a sweep again. Carolina dominated all three periods by stumping the Oilers with 24 blocked shots and relying on superb goaltending of 22-year-old Cam Ward, who stopped 25 shots to put him second behind Anaheim's Ilya Bryzgalov for the most shutouts in the postseason (two).
Oilers' backup Jussi Markkanen replaced Dwayne Roloson, who is out with a knee injury. Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish said he had full confidence in his backup, who stopped 21 of 26 shots in his first game in three months and didn't get much help from his team that took nine sloppy penalties.
The Hurricanes, though, were cautious of reading too much into the victory as they prepared to fly out to Edmonton on Thursday morning for Game 3. Said veteran Aaron Ward, "It'll be an interesting situation for the young guys [to receive their] christening at Rexall Center. It's pretty crazy. If you take the perspective of the situation, they've got an entire country behind them." Added center Doug Weight, "We know it's going to be a close game on Saturday. We'll have to make a commitment on every shift when we drop the puck."
The Oilers are looking to become the first Canadian team in 13 years to win the Cup, and the meaning isn't lost on a team that hasn't claimed that title since 1990.
"We're not particularly interested in historical percentages on the what the stats are being down two," said Oilers center Michael Peca. "We're the only ones to have been in this spot, so we're going to leave the baggage in the locker room and get prepared the next two days for a home game." And that is what the Hurricanes fear most.
There are all kinds of formulas for winning the Stanley Cup, but using all three goaltenders on your roster in the first two games probably isn't one of them.
Faced with a choice that was goaltending equivalent of Tastes Great or Less Filling after losing starter Dwayne Roloson for the series late in Game 1 -- either Ty Conklin or Jussi Markkanen, both with egregious .880 save percentages during the regular season -- Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish decided on Less Filling, the sometimes feckless Finn. After being lit up for five in Game 2 of the final by the determined Carolina Hurricanes, Markkanen might be known as More Filling. At least that's what the Hurricanes were doing to the net.
And the startling thing on a night when the Oilers didn't merely lose but started running around like a fourth graders at recess is that Markkanen fit right in -- no better or worse than the team in front of him.
Indeed, MacTavish could have used both Markkanen and Conklin in net at the same time. It hardly would have mattered.
"I thought [Markkanen] played well," said Oilers winger Ryan Smyth. "He kept us in the game early. For a guy who hasn't played in a while" -- Markkanen last played March 1 but hadn't won since Jan. 25 -- "he did well. No need to put the blame on him."
Fair enough. Sure, his save percentage for his first playoff start wound up as .808 -- five goals on 26 shots in the 5-0 rout -- but he was as much the victim as he was victimized by a team that simply melted. After some promising moments in the first period, when the determined Hurricanes were forced to block 11 shots, the Oilers simply never were in the game. They played river hockey for the first eight minutes, allowing three two-on-ones, the puck finding the net when Andrew Ladd banked one in off Edmonton defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron, who is killing his goalies. (Remember it was Bergeron who shoved Ladd into Roloson with fewer than six minutes remaining in the third period of Game 1 and knocking the goalie out with a knee in jury, which ultimately put the Oilers in this predicament. If Carolina wins, Bergeron might get an extra playoff share.)
They could not stay out of the penalty box and when they were on the penalty kill, they could not maintain the integrity of their four-man box, allowing Carolina three power play goals in 10 opportunities. As MacTavish noted, there were some truly quirky bounces on the Carolina goals, but Markkanen left some greasy rebounds, failing to corral Nic Wallin's shot that eventually led to Cory Stillman flipping in the puck with a few seconds left in the second period, a goal that seemed to crush the Oilers' spirit and wreck their discipline.
"I thought we were being too impatient," Oilers center Michael Peca said. "We got caught in the river game they like to play, and that opens us up to being vulnerable. They took advantage of that. The last thing you need to do is to continue to give a team the opportunity to score on a guy who hasn't played in four months."
Now there is nowhere for MacTavish to go, other than to Edmonton for Game 3 Saturday. He is committed to Markkanen for the rest of the series, hoping that the goalie's confidence level -- one reason he chose Markkanen over Conklin, who made the puck-handling gaffe that resulted in Carolina's last-minute winner in Game 1 -- improves. If Markkanen's indifferent play were a question of nerves, MacTavish suggested, it would have been evidenced in the way he handled the puck. He didn't handle it badly. And he certainly swept it out of his net with aplomb.
If Edmonton is going to rebound in this series, it has to make the goaltender irrelevant. The Oilers need to bubblewrap Markkanen, get in even more shooting lanes to block shots, play the way they did when their pre-Roloson netminding was left to the shaky troika of Markkanen, Conklin and Mike Morrison (traded at the deadline to Ottawa). The Oilers have to avoid penalties, bang the Carolina defense on the forecheck, tighten up in the neutral zone.
MacTavish has a terrific selling job in the next 72 hours, getting his team to ignore that it has been outscored 10-1 in the series since late in the second period of Game 1 and that its injured bulwark goalie, now cleanly shorn, his playoff beard as much as a memory as his generally solid postseason play, has yielded to a backup goalie who was one reason eighth-seeded Oilers scuffled just to get into the playoffs.
If you're an Oilers fan, it's enough to make you cry into your (lite) beer.