MacKinnon: Oilers tweak forward lines in attempt to get more offence

 

Eberle joins Perron and Gagnon, Yakupov now with Nugent-Hopkins and Hall

 
 
 
 
Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron and Buffalo Sabres’ Jamie McBain turn to chase the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.
 
 

Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron and Buffalo Sabres’ Jamie McBain turn to chase the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.

Photograph by: Sean Rudyk, Getty Images

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NEW YORK — At a cursory glance, and certainly by their current standards, the Edmonton Oilers are on a roll.

They have won four of their last five games, including victories over big, heavy teams like the Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks, as they prepared Wednesday to face the New York Rangers, winners of four straight games, at 5 p.m. MST Thursday at Madison Square Garden.

On closer inspection, the Oilers’ current uptick in performance doesn’t entirely scan. For starters, they have given up 144 shots in their last three games, but emerged with two victories.

Yes, they shut out San Jose 3-0, but that was on the strength of a magical, 59-save performance by goalie Ben Scrivens.

Yes, they squeaked past the 30th-place Buffalo Sabres 3-2, but they looked mighty sloppy doing it. Happily, they were backstopped by Ilya Bryzgalov, who blocked 42 of 44 shots.

Obviously, being bailed out by a hot goalie is not a sustainable strategy. Certainly not against the surging Rangers, who clobbered the Colorado Avalanche 5-1 on Wednesday night, delivering a comprehensive performance some observers called their best overall game this season.

On Wednesday, the Oilers skated through a brisk, 60-minute practice at Chelsea Pier, a quirky facility where a seat in the metal bleachers affords a commanding view of the ships gliding by on the Hudson River, if watching hockey drills isn’t your bag.

Also visible from that vantage point were a couple of forward line tweaks head coach Dallas Eakins made on the top two lines. Eakins moved right winger Jordan Eberle from the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins/Taylor Hall line to the right side with Sam Gagner and David Perron, who flipped from right to left wing.

Nail Yakupov moves from left wing on the Gagner line to right wing with Nugent-Hopkins and Hall.

The switch isn’t likely to disrupt Eberle’s game.

“I don’t think it really does,” said Eberle, who has 19 goals and 45 points. “I have played with Gagner a ton, I’ve played with Perron a ton. We like playing with each other.

“Obviously, Perron’s a guy who’s going to get to the net and gets in traffic. He’s a big body. And Gagner is a guy who likes to give-and-go, just like myself. I’ve had chemistry with both guys and I’m looking forward to it.”

The Gagner line made things happen in the victory over Buffalo, especially Perron, who set up goals by defencemen Jeff Petry and Justin Schultz.

But concern that the Oilers have been too reliant of late on Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle prompted Eakins to make the switch.

“We’re just trying to generate some more offence,” said Eakins. “The last few games, our chances have gone south a little bit. And not in a drastic way, but we’re just looking for some different looks.

“I think (Yakupov) has played better and to get him with Hallsy and Nuge may benefit the individual very well, especially with those three guys. They should be able to generate a lot of offence.

“We’ll see how it goes. As always, you shake up lines, sometimes it looks good and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Perron, who played with Eberle and Mark Arcobello in the pre-season and early in the season while Gagner recovered from that nasty broken jaw, also was fine with the line juggling.

“(Eberle) can be trusted on both sides of the puck and he’s obviously a really good player,” Perron said. “It’s always a fun challenge for me to join a guy like him.

“I’m just going to try to (play) my game, get to the net, stuff like that. I think we all have that same mentality. Even though he likes to make plays and stuff, he’s still got to get to the net and stay there.

“That’s how we’re going to score more goals.”

With all their skill, more goals should also come from the Oilers’ power play. But it’s not necessarily so, evidently. Against Buffalo, for example, the Oilers were zero-for-five with a man advantage. Over their last 10 games, the Oilers are five-for-35 (14.2-per-cent success rate) on the power play. They have failed to score a power-play goal in six of those 10 games.

Not only that, they gave up another short-handed goal, their league-leading 10th this season, against Buffalo. That gaffe was offset by a short-handed goal of their own, by checker Matt Hendricks, which turned out to be the game-winner.

Still the power play is underwhelming, chugging along at a 17.2-per-cent success rate, with 35 goals on 203 power-play chances, to rank 19th in the league. Edmonton’s power play clicks, if that’s the right word, at an abysmal 11 per cent on the road.

Eakins didn’t even run any power-play drills on Wednesday, perhaps thinking, like a blocked writer, sometimes it’s best to just walk away from it, come back later and try again.

What, exactly, is up with the opponents getting more and better chances on the Oilers’ power play than the Oilers, or so it seems, Eakins was asked.

“Well, No. 1, on the power play, as soon as you’re sensing danger, you have to go into five-on-five mode,” said Eakins. “We’ve been standing, watching a guy under pressure, and instead of eating the puck, we’re looking to give it up. Those are individual decisions.

“Our power play has been struggling greatly. I think today is the first day that I can remember probably in two weeks that I haven’t worked on it. I’ve just kind of left it alone.”

About a month ago, Eakins installed a 1-3-1 format on the power play because the structure the club deployed last season had become ineffective.

“We’re trying to get the guys to shoot the puck more, but the problem with it is you can keep encouraging them, asking them to do it (shoot the puck), and they are trying, but most of our guys on our power play, they’re passers. And it’s going to take some time to get them in that mindset where they’re just teeing pucks up.

“We’ll continue to work on it. Our players are engaged, they understand the danger of the 1-3-1. It’s very hard to defend. And it’s something that we want to stick with, right through to the end of the year.”

No wonder it’s tougher on the road. At home, at least, the fans often helpfully holler: “Shoooot!” as the Oilers’ power play sputters.

 
 
 
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Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron and Buffalo Sabres’ Jamie McBain turn to chase the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.
 

Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron and Buffalo Sabres’ Jamie McBain turn to chase the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.

Photograph by: Sean Rudyk, Getty Images

 
Edmonton Oilers winger David Perron and Buffalo Sabres’ Jamie McBain turn to chase the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.
David Perron of the Edmonton Oilers tries to check Tyler Myers as the Buffalo Sabres defenceman rushes the puck during a National Hockey League game at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 3, 2014.
 
 
 
 
 
 
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