ANAHEIM, Calif. — Kris Knoblauch made some significant lineup changes after his team lost for the first time in 17 games.
One turned out to be a splendid decision by the Edmonton Oilers coach and was the catalyst in a 5-3 win Friday over the Anaheim Ducks.
The others, multiple moves as part of a bigger-picture change, not quite as much.
Let’s get to the good stuff first, considering the Oilers won and all.
Up front, former longtime Duck Corey Perry and Warren Foegele swapped places in the lineup.
That allowed Perry to skate with Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane, a trio that proved to be a major pain in the Ducks’ collective derrieres.
Kane recorded his 10th NHL hat trick — including two in the postseason — which he completed into an empty net. Kane’s first five-on-five goal was assisted by Perry, who was so much of a pest against his old club that he was jeered by fans who used to adore him. Draisaitl set up Kane’s other five-on-five tally and scored the winner on an Oilers power play.
“What we expected was how well they would be in the offensive zone,” Knoblauch said.
“Obviously, the contributions offensively in the goal department was nice to have.”
“He played a heck of a game tonight in all areas.”
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) February 10, 2024
Knoblauch made the Perry-Foegele switch because he felt the forward group had become too stagnant, too reliant on Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. Perry responded with his best game of three as an Oiler.
Perry straddled the line of fair play, especially on Kane’s first goal. He slashed the stick out of goaltender John Gibson’s hands and then tripped Bo Groulx moments before Kane scored. He got away scot-free.
Boos rained down from the fans. They became further incensed when it was announced that an assist was credited to Perry.
“He’s really good at it,” Ekholm added. “That’s probably why he’s been so successful in this league.
“He knows where to take advantage of some little details that make a big difference in the end.”
“It’s nice to have him on our side,” Draisaitl said. “He’s the master of playing the game within the game. He’s done it all his life.”
As Draisaitl alluded, Perry has been doing that type of stuff to the Oilers for years — much to the chagrin of players and fans.
“In Edmonton, I’m sure …,” Knoblauch started before smiling and pivoting with his answer. “It’s nice to have him.”
Kane, meanwhile, has come back from the All-Star break playing some good hockey. He was noticeable in Las Vegas on Tuesday. He was rewarded in Anaheim on Friday.
“Right now is a perfect time,” Knoblauch said when asked about the importance of Kane producing.
“We needed other guys to step up. If you were going to pick somebody, it would be probably Evander Kane to step up.”
Clearly, the Perry-Foegele flip worked out wonderfully.
“It was a great game for us as a line,” Draisaitl said. “Something to build on for sure.”
But the bigger moves were on defence.
Knoblauch used pairings of Darnell Nurse and Vincent Desharnais, Mattias Ekholm and Cody Ceci, and Brett Kulak and Evan Bouchard. He kept those first two duos together for penalty-killing duties.
“We want to be prepared for when things do happen, whether there’s injuries or someone’s slumping and we need to change something because of an opposition,” Knoblauch said before the game. “But as a coaching staff, we always have to be mindful of not blowing things up, not doing anything too drastic.”
The first part of Knoblauch’s thought process made sense. The Oilers have played just 10 games, including playoffs, without each of those six blueliners in the lineup since Ekholm was acquired from Nashville last February — almost a year ago.
Ceci missed two games right before the playoffs last season before his wife gave birth to their first child. Nurse was suspended for Game 5 of the Vegas series. Ekholm sat out the season opener with a hip flexor/groin injury. Desharnais didn’t play in four games after he was first recalled in January 2023 and then was scratched for two contests early in the season in favour of Philip Broberg in six-defence system.
Pairings of Nurse-Ceci, Ekholm-Bouchard, and Kulak-Desharnais have been constants.
“All three pairs have become where you don’t have to look or think,” Ekholm said. “You know what the other guy’s going to do at certain moments. It’s a great feeling. You can dictate instead of reacting. That’s where you want to be with your partner.
“But everybody’s not healthy all the time.”
That’s just it.
So, why not try something different for a February game against a rebuilding team, especially one the Oilers had dominated over the previous five matchups — winning all five with a 30-7 goals advantage?
But this wasn’t tweaking two pairs. It was completely jumbling three.
If that’s “not blowing things up, not doing anything too drastic” then it’s hard to imagine what would have been.
Ekholm and Ceci had played together just 14:06 at five-on-five entering Friday’s game, the lowest of any non-Broberg duo. Nurse-Desharnais (25:51) and Kulak-Bouchard (34:14) had shared the ice only slightly more often.
The result was plenty of kinks and uncertainty on the ice highlighted by Nurse and Desharnais letting Ryan Strome behind them for Anaheim’s second goal.
The lowly Ducks — playing without Trevor Zegras, Mason McTavish, Alex Killorn and Pavel Mintyukov — were the first team to score three goals on an Oilers goaltender in 2024. There had been 15 games played since that had happened.
“With defencemen, the chemistry is more important,” Knoblauch said. “It is better often that they stick together more than forwards do. But I think it’s important that they play with other partners and mix it up a little bit once in a while.”
Knoblauch said the forwards not helping enough in the defensive zone was just as much of an issue — if not more.
Yet, in the third period, the tried-and-true Ekholm-Bouchard pair was reunited with Kulak and Ceci forming a partnership.
“We got going and played back to (how) we can,” Ekholm said. “It’s nice to try something different.”
Knoblauch said he’d have to reevaluate the pairings for Saturday’s game in Los Angeles after dissecting the video.
The Oilers didn’t bring their best Friday but managed to win anyway. One rare loss didn’t become two in a row.
There were some other solid performances. McDavid had three assists. Despite allowing those three goals, backup Calvin Pickard made some big stops in net.
But they won mostly because of the production of the newly formed second line of Perry, Draisaitl and Kane.
It was only a month ago that Draisaitl was excelling with Foegele and Ryan McLeod, two faster players. Now it’s two power forwards on his line.
Though acquiring middle-six winger is all the scuttlebutt as the Oilers approach the March 8 trade deadline, it appears there are options aplenty on scoring lines as it stands.
“Lots of combinations,” Draisaitl said. “You can shape it any way you want, really. It’s a big plus for our group.”
(Photo of Anaheim’s Brett Leason with the puck against Edmonton’s Vincent Desharnais and Darnell Nurse during the first period Friday: Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)