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8:15 PM ET, 6/09/06
Why the Oilers won't be swept
Posted by Yi-Wyn Yen
If someone gave me a loonie for every time I heard the Edmonton Oilers say "our backs are against the wall," I'd finally have enough to retire. I have yet to encounter any free cash coupons (or those free breakfast coupons for the media I keep hearing about), but a far easier way to make some spare change is to bet on the Oilers to win the next two games to even the series.
In the past six weeks, the underdog Oilers have upset top-ranked Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim to become the first eighth seed to make the Stanley Cup finals. When the Oilers lost goaltender Dwayne Roloson to a knee injury and subsequently, the opening two games of the finals to the Hurricanes, many hockey prognosticators started musing there was no need to head back to Raleigh for Game 5. Here are five reasons why the Oilers will not be swept:
-- The Oilers have bounced back from this predicament before. After losing their first two games against San Jose by one goal, the Oilers returned to Rexall Place, where they shifted the momentum with an overtime victory in Game 3 and then closed out the series with three straight wins. "We feel we win [on Saturday], we're going to win the Cup," says winger Ethan Moreau. "We're going to have that extra bit of energy, just like the San Jose series. It's very similar. We feel like we're close, and we just need that extra little push that hopefully our fans will provide for us."
-- Edmonton will capitalize on Hurricanes rookie goaltender Cam Ward making his debut at Rexall Place. Until Friday's afternoon practice, Ward, from nearby Sherwood Park, had only seen the view of the rink section 114 with his parents, Ken and Laurel. Said center Shawn Horcoff, "He's coming home and a lot of people are watching him. Hopefully, he's going to get the jitters a bit." Ward has held Edmonton to four goals in the last 63 shots, but coach Craig MacTavish, who has played on three Cup-winning teams, is confident his Oilers will be more effective at getting pucks through. After all, Edmonton slipped three goals past him in the opening 40 minutes. "There are a couple areas that we think he's vulnerable," MacTavish said.
-- An extra day off between Game 2 and Game 3 was critical for Edmonton. Both teams made the cross-country flight from Raleigh, N.C. to Edmonton, Alberta the morning after Game 2 and got an extra day of rest. For the Oilers, an extra 24 hours was essential to digest adjustments like clamping down on odd-man rushes and tailoring a more structured, technical game against Carolina (see Edmonton-Detroit series). Said defenseman Chris Pronger, "As players we kind of understand and are aware of some of the changes we need to make, but it is the coaches that are able to break it down and lay it out in simpler terms so we can understand it and correct things for Saturday."
-- Despite losing two games that included a 5-0 shutout, the Oilers will make this a close series. Though they won 5-4 in Game 1, the Hurricanes admitted that they had to rely heavily on Ward to make crucial saves. Edmonton nearly outshot Carolina twice as much in the first game, but it was a couple of flukey goals by Rod Brind'Amour, including scoring on an empty net, that made the difference. The 'Canes also got a lucky break in the first period of Game 2 when a puck bounced off Oilers' defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron's skate and into the net, which shifted momentum in their favor. "It'd be a different story if we felt outmatched or outclassed, but that's definitely not the case. We're a better team," Moreau said. "We feel we match up better than them in most aspects of the game."
-- Lastly, the Oilers will play better because they'll be wearing protective hazmat suits. If they were confused before about who they were playing, the Oilers now know what to expect. "Carolina is a little bit like carbon monoxide poisoning. You don't really sense it, but it's lethal," MacTavish said. "We put a lot of pressure on them and tried to steamroll them and impose our will and our game on them and they survived it, and thrived under it. So we have to do a few things a little differently for us to be successful. We're going to make those changes."
In this most unconventional of NHL seasons, a most unconventional group of defenseman has the Edmonton Oilers flummoxed.
The Carolina Hurricanes have no defenseman who is talented enough to play on the top pair of what usually is thought of a Stanley Cup contender. The nominal No. 1 pairing consists of a player, Aaron Ward, who was berated so often early in his career with Detroit that he could have legally changed his first name to Bleepin', and another, a Czech, Frantisek Kaberle, who isn't even the best defenseman in his own family. (His brother, Thomas, plays on the top pair for the Toronto Maple Leafs.)
The others logging big, effective minutes are Glen Wesley, whose claim to fame at this point in his career is having played about six trillion regular-season games without having won a Cup, Kristi Yamaguchi's husband (Bret Hedican), a Swede with a knack for the odd big goal (Nic Wallin), and a guy, Mike Commodore, who usually gets more attention for his Sideshow Bob mane than he does for his ability.
The Tampa Bay Lightning had a defense with a relatively slim portfolio for a Cup champion in 2004, but those guys were Hall of Famers compared to this collection of bearded No Names.
Like televised poker, the whole Carolina defense thing shouldn't work - but it has. Superbly. With forwards willing to get into shooting lanes and a defense that doesn't often physically engage the Oilers but through good positioning still manages to keep them away from goaltending wunderkind Cam Ward, Carolina has forged a 2-0 cushion in what figured to be a hyper-competitive final.
"The defensemen on this team are heavily relied on to help with the transition of the game, so you do derive some benefit from the forwards being successful," Aaron Ward said. "It's like an offensive line. When your quarterback acknowledges you once in a while, you're doing okay. We get a lot of positive feedback from our forwards."
Ward contines: "With (our defense), it's chemistry. It encapsulates our season. It's what this team is built on. We have the right mix. We have guys who are never going to be Norris Trophy candidates. That's about where we stand, and we know that. We're more or less plumbers -- just guys who are going to get the job done. We still need to be a little crisper with our passes. We had a delayed reaction (in Game 2)sometimes to where the puck should have gone. We need to be a little faster with our decision-making."
This was how it was supposed to work: Edmonton's quick if not overwhelmingly skilled forwards -- Ales Hemsky, excepted -- would get in on the forecheck, wreak havoc in Carolina's end, watch Hurricane defenseman cough up the puck the way a 10-year-old tabby hics up hairballs, and create bushels of goals from turnovers.
For the first two periods of Game 1, there was a modicum of truth to that assumption as both Ward and Commodore seemed shaky. But their jitters subsided, the three pairs started taking better care of the puck, and the Oilers' notion about abusing the Hurricanes defense proved to be as false as the teeth that winger Ryan Smyth will have implanted to replace the three he lost in Game 3 against San Jose.
"We said coming into this series that we had to be careful about underestimating them as a team," Oilers center Michael Peca said. "We also know what the keys are to exploit some of their weaknesses. Kaberle is a guy that's got some offense, but we showed in Game 1 that if we can get in on the forecheck, we can really make things happen for ourselves. We just didn't do that enough (in Game 2). We didn't recognize some of the matchups we had at times, didn't get pucks in and make them turn and get into the corners and play with the puck in the zone ... They've got some guys who are a little hesitant to get on the puck first and that allows us to get in and get pucks and make plays."
Edmonton has only intermittently pressured Kaberle, who is a hallmark of the new-style NHL defenseman. He is neither physically imposing nor a bulldozer around the crease, but he is a capable skater and an excellent puck-mover. Like the Flyers' Legion of Doom learned in the 1997 final against Detroit's defensive pairing of Nicklas Lidstrom and Larry Murphy, you can't really forecheck if the defensemen move the puck swiftly and expertly enough.
Oilers left winger Ryan Smyth praised Kaberle faintly, noting that the defenseman who had a power play goal and two assists in Game 2 has "an offensive upside" -- a polite way of saying that Edmonton remains suspicious of his defensive worth.
Either the Oilers have to quit fooling themselves or the underrated Carolina defense is going to have to quit fooling the rest of the hockey world.