The story, and rightfully so, coming out of Tuesday night’s 5-2 Oilers victory on Long Island was the four goals scored by James Neal. It’s a great story and an overdue bit of good fortune for the club. One thing that really stuck out to me outside of Neal’s’ magical night? Riley Sheahan’s strong debut performance.
Sheahan, signed right before training camp began, centered a line with big wingers Jujhar Khaira and Patrick Russell. The objective of this line was quite obvious. This trio was expected to play a solid defensive game, add a physical element and potentially cycle the puck in the offensive zone using their size.
They did all of that and then some on Tuesday night. Their performance should give Oilers fans hope that a reliable shutdown line is in the making.
Sheahan provides the Oilers with a stabilizing veteran presence in the bottom-six. With all due respect to Colby Cave, Sheahan can do so many more things at an NHL level. He’s strong on faceoffs, kills penalties, provides a two-way presence and is functional in the offensive zone. Every time Sheahan and his line took the ice on Tuesday I was not concerned about a goal against.
Khaira did not play well in the season’s first two games. That changed against the Islanders. He was more assertive, used his size effectively and forced himself into shooting positions on multiple occasions. That is the kind of game he’ll need to play if he wants to stay in the NHL lineup. When he plays that way, he’s an impact bottom-six forward.
I’m not sure how long Russell will last on this line. He’s played well in his two games, but Josh Archibald showed well here in the preseason and is a better player. That said, Russell does almost all of the little things well, is physical, strong defensively and can help kill penalties. He’s a valuable player to have at the bottom of the depth chart.
This line impressed me with the way they seemingly always had the puck going in the right direction on Tuesday. When they got into the offensive zone, they stayed there too. This is a blue-collar line that has the ability to cycle pucks, wear down the defense and drive into scoring areas. It was fun to watch.
On those occasions where this line got stuck in the defensive zone, they stayed within the system and were structured. They gave up very few good looks, which is extra important considering the uncertainty in Edmonton’s net.
It was only one game, far too small of a sample size to get overly excited. That said, there were good signs in the preseason from Sheahan’s line and they continued last night. If Dave Tippett has a reliable shutdown trio, the Oilers will be in much better shape than last year.