Horcoff, Helm deliver much-needed big games

October, 30, 2009

The dramatic ebb and flow of Thursday night's 6-5 shootout win by the Edmonton Oilers over the visiting Detroit Red Wings notwithstanding, I thought it was a huge game for two players in particular.

Edmonton's Shawn Horcoff and Detroit's Darren Helm needed big efforts and they delivered.

Let's start with Horcoff, the 31-year-old center who entered Thursday's game with only two points (1-1) and a minus-7 rating in 12 games this season. That's not the output you expect from a $5.5-million-a-year man.

Back on the top line between Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky, Horcoff delivered his best performance of the season, a three-point (1-2) effort with a plus-2 rating in 22:25 of ice time, the most of any Oilers forward on the night.

"It's been a little bit tough, but I felt like I was playing well," Horcoff told ESPN.com over the phone after the game. "I was getting chances, but just not getting the bounces. It's early and you just have to stick with it. It was a matter of time until it came and it was nice to get a few bounces tonight."

Oilers coach Pat Quinn shuffled his forward lines after the Oilers were shut out in back-to-back games. That put Horcoff back with Hemsky, who has been his regular winger for a long time.

"We've played together a ton before and lots with Penner, too, so it's comfortable out there," said Horcoff. "There's no feeling-out phase. We're very familiar with each other and it was nice to contribute like that as a line tonight [four goals for the line]."

After a career-high 73 points (22-51) in 2005-06, Horcoff has produced three consecutive 50-plus point seasons. Those are solid numbers, but somehow there's always the feeling among some Oilers fans that it's not enough, especially for a guy in the first year of a six-year, $33 million contract extension ($5.5 million cap annual number). But I like this player. I think he does a lot of other things that are just as important. He's a terrific penalty killer, leading all Oilers forwards in short-handed ice time, and second among Edmonton forwards in blocked shots.

He needed Thursday night's game, though. As did Helm. The 22-year-old was a healthy scratch Tuesday night in Vancouver, as Red Wings coach Mike Babcock sent a clear message that Helm wasn't playing up to par so far.

"I wasn't playing like I wanted to and that was Babs taking me out and officially letting me know that I had to be better," Helm told us Thursday night. "I took it as a challenge. I wanted to respond."

Babcock's message was received loud and clear. Helm was by far the most noticeable Red Wing on Thursday night, at least from my TV screen vantage point, producing a goal and an assist and a plus-3 rating.

Helm, such a spark plug in the playoffs last season, came into this season with an assured job, one of the younger faces ready to step in for departing veterans. But Helm injured his clavicle early in training camp and missed the first four regular-season games. For any player, but especially a youngster, missing camp really puts you behind the 8-ball.

"Missing camp and missing the whole start, when you have to jump in like that, it's like everybody is warmed up and I'm just trying to figure out what's going on," said Helm. "It takes a little time to get the feel back of the game. It came along slowly, but it's pretty close to where I want it right now."

Helm's goal Thursday was the first regular-season tally of his NHL career, and yet he had already six goals over two playoff seasons. Strange, to say the least.

"It's still exciting for me, I don't score a whole lot of goals," said Helm. "I've had bigger goals in the playoffs, but at the same time, I'll take it for sure."

And he'll take his regular spot in the lineup from here on out.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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