Tuesday’s Three Stars: Several Hawks Shine, But Oilers Get Last Laugh in Saskatoon

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Tuesday night may not have mattered in the standings to the Edmonton Oilers and Chicago Blackhawks, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by the high level of play that was displayed as the two teams met in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in their respective preseason openers. Rostislav Olesz and Jamal Mayers netted goals for the Blackhawks, but it wasn’t enough to overcome two tallies by Josh Green and the game winning goal by Jordan Eberle late in the third period as the Oilers beat Chicago 4-2.

The game got off to a bit of a sluggish start, with both teams struggling with new line combinations and the aftereffects of a long summer layoff. Even with that, the Hawks generally dominated the first 20 minutes, outshooting Edmonton 11-9 and getting solid performances from youngsters Viktor Stalberg and Jimmy Hayes. They were both stymied by Devan Dubynk however, and the game remained scoreless until Ryan Smyth parked himself in front of Ray Emery on a power play and tipped home a shot to give the Oilers a 1-0 lead. Shortly thereafter, Green scored the first of his two goals when he uncorked a wicked wrister over Emery’s shoulder, and it looked like the Oilers had the game well in hand.

Chicago stormed back, however, as Olesz capped off a very solid period of play by snagging a wayward pass over the middle of the defensive zone by Edmonton and flipped it past Dubynk to make the score 2-1. Mayers then scored a short time later on a nice pass from Mark McNeill to tie the game at 2-2, but that would be the last good moment the Hawks would have on this night. After failing yet again on the power play (they ended up 0-5 on the evening), Eberle scored on a 2-on-1 break to give Edmonton a lead it would never relinquish, and Green scored an empty netter to finish things off.

Obviously the score doesn’t matter much when it comes to a preseason game, but what does matter is how various position battles shake out, and how new faces seem to be meshing with their new club. Starting with the former, the battle between Emery and Alexander Salak for the back-up spot to Corey Crawford kicked off on Tuesday, but no clear cut winner emerged. Both players gave up soft goals, with Emery going down too early on Green’s wrister and Salak not sealing off the right side of the net on Eberle’s 2-on-1 tally. Both players had good games overall, but if you had to just look at this one, you’d have to give the edge to Emery, as he faced more pressure than the youngster in this one.

Mark McNeill

Staying on the goaltending theme, it seems as though the team is going to lean toward giving Emery the final roster spot and have Salak mind the net in Rockford. No one is explicitly saying so, but it would stand to reason that the team would prefer to have a veteran backing up Crawford, who despite his stellar season last year is still a very young man in this game and could theoretically have a relapse into the inconsistency that dogged him while he tried to make Chicago’s roster over the years. Salak would have to really put on a jaw-dropping show this pre-season to challenge Emery for the position, and if Tuesday’s game is any indication, he doesn’t seem primed to do so.

As for new faces making an impact, that certainly was the case on Tuesday. Sami Lepisto saw some serious minutes on the power play for Chicago in this one, and while that probably isn’t something to write home about considering the unit’s poor performance, he did move the puck well and certainly made a solid effort to prove that he deserves a spot on the Hawks’ blue line.

Another guy who had a great showing was Olesz. Coming from Florida in the deal that sent Brian Campbell to the Panthers, Olesz seems like kind of a forgotten guy for this team, but if he keeps bringing the effort that he did in this game, he won’t be under the radar for long. He was all over the ice and really pushed the tempo on offense, and he was rewarded with an easy goal.

Finally, Mayers really started to look good in the second and third periods, and it underscored just how excited he is to be playing for Chicago. Throughout the summer and the beginning of training camp, Mayers has been working hard and displaying a hunger to be on the ice that could bode well for a team in need of some punch from its bottom six forwards, and he very well could provide that. Obviously he will not be looked at to score a slew of goals or be a key contributor on the power play, but if he can give the team a burst of energy and the occasional goal, he could be a secret weapon for this club.

The Hawks will next take to the ice on Thursday night when they battle the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center. The game will not be televised, but it will be available on WGN Radio.

With that, here are Tuesday night’s Three Stars, with one honorable mention:

Honorable Mention: Brandon Saad

Although he didn’t register any points in this contest, Saad displayed some of the skills that have prognosticators saying he could turn out to be one of the real steals of the 2011 Draft. He is a lightning quick player with some great offensive skills, and he really pushed the tempo at times throughout this game. His performance in this one garnered the acclaim of notoriously tough critic Joel Quenneville, and it will be interesting to see how he develops through the rest of this preseason.

Third Star: Mark McNeill

McNeill, a first round draft pick for the Hawks in 2011, made the most of his debut with the team on Tuesday. He picked up an assist in the loss, and he was all over the ice with the quickness and offensive burst that the team is looking for out of him. What really stood out was the play he made to assist on Mayers’ goal in the second period.

Aided by Kyle Beach in a puck battle in the corner, McNeill did a great job of protecting the puck from two Oilers’ defenders, and he somehow managed to get an open look up ice, and he drilled a pass onto Mayers’ tape, who finished the job and tied the game for Chicago. It was a play that happened very quickly, but it definitely showed that Mark has some toughness and offensive awareness that could lend itself well to his NHL career once it starts. That obviously won’t be this year, but those characteristics, as well as his leadership abilities, give the Hawks a tremendous weapon in development that will prove useful later on.

Second Star: Jamal Mayers

Mayers’ first game in the Indian head sweater was certainly one that he will remember, and it could be a great omen of things to come for this club. He brought the physicality that everyone assumed he would, but what was surprising was the amount of speed that he displayed throughout the contest. He actually has a very solid first step, and if a defenseman sleeps on him because of his reputation as a grinder, he seems like he has the ability to make them pay.

First Star: Rostislav Olesz

Olesz may not be the fastest guy on the ice, but he certainly has a nose for the puck, and that definitely earned him First Star honors tonight. He seemed to work very well with linemates Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg, including on one noteworthy possession in the third period that may not have resulted in a goal, but definitely showed some strong fundamentals in this Hawks’ squad.

Over a span of a little over two minutes, those three forwards managed to keep the puck in Edmonton’s zone, threatening to score nonstop during that time frame. Two of the Oilers lost their sticks in the exchange, and although they tried to clear the zone several times, the Hawks managed to keep the pressure on. It was stunning that Chicago did not score, but it did give some hope to fans who were used to the team struggling to establish solid possessions last season. This line likely won’t be one that carries over into the regular season, but it certainly bodes well for the Hawks that guys like Olesz and Stalberg worked so well together. Forward depth is a key to this team’s success, and they showed that they could have it in spades with the performance they turned in for their preseason opener.

 

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