And so we reach already one of the early mileposts of a Hawks' season, the Circus Trip is already upon us. However, there is the small matter of this evening's game before the Hawks depart for two weeks and 6 games worth of limo rides, Kokanee, and Mario Kart on the road. Enter the young, upstart Edmonton Oilers, who shockingly lead the Northwest Division with a record of 9-5-2, good for 20 points. Much of the Oilers' success this young season has been built on the foundation of rock-solid goaltending, provided by a familiar face, Nikolai Khabibulin. After a brief stint in the Arizona hoosegow for his little glug-glug, vroom-vroom incident, Khabby is leading the league in both goals-against AND save percentage with the Area 51 numbers of 1.18 per and .957 respectively. That he's kept that pace even near the quarter pole for someone approaching AARP eligibility is a marvel in and of itself, but no one here has ever doubted Nik's ability when he's healthy and/or gives a shit, both of which seem to be the case this year. And shockingly enough, for all the young offensive talent that the Oil boast, Khabby's been doing it largely on his own, as Edmonton is only 26th in scoring with 2.19 goals per game, and are getting outshot by 3.6 shots per (25.4 vs 29.0).
Though Edmonton certainly boasts a cornucopia of young, fast, and potent forwards in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Magnus Pajaarvi, and most recent #1 overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, their leading scorer coming into tonight is the old, overpaid, but still apparently useful Ryan Smyth, who leads all Oilers in goals and points with a 9G-7A-16P stat line. RNH isn't far behind, though with 7G-6A-13P, and the rest of Kids Incorporated are all right along those same lines, with the exception of Pajaarvi, who is off to a wretched start with only a single assist in 14 games. However, perhaps the biggest catalyst to Edmonton's early success has been their favorable home vs. road ratio early on, as the Oil are 6-1-1 at home, but 3-4-1 on the road, and only 2-3 as they wrap up a 6-game, cross continent roadie tonight on West Madison. That record, along with the fact that the Oilers are allowing 30 shots and taking just 23.4 away from Rexall speaks to coach Tom Renney's ability to get advantageous matchups when afforded last change. He'll have no such opportunity tonight.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, after much anger and confusion coming off 2 straight bad losses to Vancouver and St. Louis, the Hawks still find themselves in the position to head out on the road on a winning streak, after dispatching Columbus and Calgary as well as can be hoped for. Even with the end results being what they were, given the quality of that competition, there were certain other things that needed improving as well, and for the most part they have. The power play has 3 goals in the last two games despite the second unit being a personnel clusterfuck. The defensive pairs have settled down to what was envisioned in the pre-season..well at least the top 2 pairs have. John Scott will once again be on the third pairing with Steve Montador, for reasons only Joel Quenneville has, and no one in the press corps will follow up on asking. Mark my words, the game Edmonton plays will lead to a goal against with Scott on the ice. Dave Bolland will also miss his third straight game after taking a shot off the foot in St. Louis, but will make the trip. Fortunately for the Hawks, Marcus Kruger's game has actually been progressing nicely, even if the shot selection of his linemates leaves a lot to be desired.
Last year, the Oilers marched into the United Center and dong whipped the Hawks twice, which was four points that the Hawks would have very much liked to have had going into the final days of the season. This year, the Oilers are a much improved lot, and are getting a consistently stellar goaltending performance from Nikolai Harvey Birdman to boot. The Oilers may play the uptempo game the Hawks want, but tonight has all the earmarks of a 55 shot blanking. Traffic in front, and making the Oilers pay on the power play will be key, assuming one foot isn't already on the bus. Let's go Hawks.