Game Day 30: Senators at Oilers
Poor Matt Benning. The 25-year-old defenceman has taken a few knocks to the noggin since his arrival in Edmonton four seasons ago, but this is getting ridiculous. Two weeks ago he was sidelined with yet more head trauma when he received a two-handed clubbing from San Jose’s Evander Kane that somehow avoided the detection of the referees or even the follow-up attention of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety. Both badly coughed up the puck on one of the most dangerous fouls of the season, a direct head shot that resulted in significant injury. Bottom line, Benning was unavailable to the Oilers for five games, reportedly not an actual concussion but an inner ear issue.
Benning finally worked his way back into the line-up on Sunday night in Vancouver when Kris Russell was unavailable to play; indeed the team as a whole was missing four veterans with a combined 2463 games of NHL experience. He had barely gotten his feet under him when a hard point shot took a deflection and caught the defender, you guessed it, right in the bean. Benning went to the dark room for a time, later made a somewhat surprising and certainly dubious return to the game, but appeared discombobulated and made a couple of uncharacteristic defensive mistakes that led directly to Vancouver scoring chances. After the second of those he never saw the ice again, nor did he return even to the bench for the third period. From his perspective it was his second straight game that he was unable to complete, each time due to a head issue.
That wasn’t the only fallout. Benning’s partner in that game, Caleb Jones, also saw his last action as an Oiler for the foreseeable future on the same shift Benning did. With his defence reduced to five healthy men, Dave Tippett upped the ante and went with just four for the entire third period. Those four — Darnell Nurse, Ethan Bear, Oscar Klefbom, and Adam Larsson — answered the bell with alacrity, contributing a shutdown final frame as the Oilers nursed a 3-2 lead all the way to the buzzer. That staunch defensive stand by the short-staffed Oil was key to what this observer sees as their biggest win of the season to date, coming as it did just 24 hours after the upstart Canucks had waxed them 5-2 right in Edmonton.
On Tuesday the Oilers shuffled the deck further, announcing four roster moves, three of them involving the defence.
No surprise that the unfortunate Benning finds himself back on IR after his latest misfortune, and confirms the club will take no chances with him for at least the next seven days. I fear it could be a lot longer than that.
The other two complementary moves involve the shuffle of Jones back to Bakersfield and the return of fellow NHL rookie Joel Persson to Edmonton.
Jones had many nice moments during his second NHL stint, which lasted for 9 games. Called up on November 13 after Brandon Manning broke a finger, the 22-year-old was not only inserted directly into the line-up but straight into the top four and on his off side at that. He ultimately played over 70% of his 132 even strength minutes with fellow left-shot Oscar Klefbom, the club’s #1 defenceman in terms of overall ice time and by any definition a top four at even strength. While Klefbom played other shifts with other partners, he and Jones were a regular pairing as recently as last Saturday night vs. Vancouver.
But things went south for Jones over the last seven days. His pairing with Klefbom had a brutal game at Colorado, getting repeatedly torched by Nathan MacKinnon and the Avs for Grade A chances and goals, and sporting matching -3s in a 4-1 loss. Saturday was less about a disastrous performance than it was a single disastrous sequence, where Jones made a bad pinch at the Vancouver blueline, then an ineffectual pursuit of the subsequent jailbreak that resulted in the game-turning goal that put the Canucks back in front to stay. Then came the Sunday benching, followed by the Tuesday demotion. A tough week for the youngster but hopefully some valuable lessons learned during his second NHL look.
Into the breach steps Klefbom’s previous partner, Joel Persson, who had his own struggles playing top four minutes at the very start of his NHL career. That situation was forced to some degree by the Game 1 injury of mainstay Adam Larsson, which opened doors for all of Ethan Bear, Persson, and later Jones — rookies all — to play top four minutes. Among them, Bear seized the day and had become a fixture alongside Darnell Nurse. For his part Klefbom has seen a revolving door to his right, most recently being reunited with his old partner Larsson, with both players excelling in big minutes down the stretch on Sunday, as did Nurse and Bear. It’s an easy and obvious decision for Dave Tippett to continue with that quartet as his top four in the foreseeable future, and to cobble together a third pairing with Russell as its anchor. That’s a nice fit for Persson that allows both players to play on their natural side and indeed for the d-corps as a whole to run Tippett’s stated preference of lefty-righty pairings from top to bottom. Russell’s specialty is defensive play, and the presence of a clever puckmover to his right is a natural fit.
The return of Skinner to Bakersfield after one game wearing the ballcap of the backup goalie is not a surprise, but is welcome confirmation that the injury Mike Smith incurred on Saturday night was relatively minor in nature. Smith will back up Mikko Koskinen tonight vs. Ottawa.
With three players and over $9 million on injured reserve, the Oilers are tight to the cap and carrying an active roster of just 22 players. One of those is Zack Kassian, who remains out with a back issue, leaving just 12 healthy forwards. At yesterday’s full practice Tippett stayed with the same lines as Sunday night in Vancouver, and there’s no reason to expect a change tonight, at least to start. In the continuing absence of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, star forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will each centre their own lines, even as they will continue to team up on the Oilers’ deadly powerplay.
On the back end there is a wholesale change of the third pairing, with both Manning and Jones unavailable. Russell returns to action and will be joined by Persson, who gets parachuted directly into the line-up. Brandon Manning continues in the role of seventh defenceman while younger men receive ice time, be it in Edmonton or Bakersfield. He will play tonight only if another skater, be it a d-man or a forward, is unable to go for some reason.
Koskinen returns to the net, his 15th start of the 30. While the crease has been equally shared with neither man starting more than two games in a row at any point, the big Finn is making a strong claim for a larger share of the minutes. His “goalie boxcars” of 10-2-2, 2.52., .921 are superior across the board to Smith (7-7-1, 2.83, .907), and given the latter’s recent knee tweak Oilers fans might see their first extended run with a single netminder. Today is the first of nine consecutive games on an every-other-day rotation, as the Oilers play every even-numbered date right through Dec 20.
Tonight’s opponent, the Ottawa Senators, are riding a five-game regulation losing streak during which they have scored just 6 goals and allowed 18. The Sens played last night in Vancouver where they fell behind 4-0 in the first period and were ultimately beaten 5-2. The home side will be strong favourites to win; that said Oil fans have seen this scenario way too often to take a darn thing for granted, especially against a pesky opponent that, as Michaels notes above, has had its way in this building in each of its last five visits. No excuse for the home team to take its opponent lightly, not that there ever is in this league.
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