I have to admit—I didn’t realize just how much I missed hockey until I was sitting way up in the 300s at Rexall Place last night, looking down on a building packed to the rafters with 17,000 screaming fans all eager to put this past regrettable year behind them and welcome hockey back into their lives. It’s hard to believe it had been almost two years since I’d been to a game myself; you forget the atmosphere so quickly—how much more immediate the game feels, how someone can shout “Here we go, Oilers” at any time for any reason and immediately be joined by a chorus of thousands (too bad the same couldn’t be said for the drunk guy in front of us who kept yelling at everyone to start a wave during the last five minutes of what was a tie game. Timing might have been your problem, there, jackass), how absurdly cheated you feel buying a pint-that’s-actually-four-ounces-less-than-a-pint of Canadian for $6.50… it’s all pretty heady stuff, and holy god is it good to see it again.
As for the game itself, surely you don’t need much of a recap out of me (check it out here if you do)—the Oilers, apparently, are going to alternate icing their Blue and White camp teams for the first half of the preseason, starting out last eve with Team Blue, featuring Ryan Smyth, Chris Pronger and Radek Dvorak and a few other regulars, with Mike Morrison in net. The Flames meanwhile, iced a clear B-list team, not bothering to dress Iginla, Hamrlk, Amonte and Kiprusoff, giving players like Matt Lombardi and second star Byron Ritchie more time to strut their stuff, and alternating Phillip Sauve and Brent Krahn (KRAAAAAAHHNNN!!) between the pipes.
That the Oilers could only muster a 2-1 shootout win against an opponent mostly comprised of AHLers and East Coast hopefuls with some of their biggest guns was a little unnerving (and was indeed duly pointed out by every single Flames fan with a computer last night on TSN’s postgame thread), but truth be told it was a pretty even game, with the Oilers putting forth a solid effort—Smyth, Dvorak and Pronger were particularly outstanding all night, as well they should be. Most obviously improved upon from last year was the performance on the powerplay (they must have drugged Craig Simpson and locked him in a broom closet just before the game), where rookie and the game’s first star Robbie Schremp looked absolutely phenomenal on the half-boards, dishing out smart crisp passes all night and unloading a couple absolute cannons on net. Chances are the brass will decide he needs an extra year on the farm, which is a shame, because it’s been a long, long time since Oil fans have seen a rookie as ready to step up right now as Schremp.
Also looking comfortable beyond their years were 2005 third-round pick Danny Syvret and fellow blue-liner Dan Smith, acquired from the Avalanche in the Tommy Salo trade. Both were poised, played conservatively, finished their checks and made few mistakes. This, hopefully, doesn’t bode well for Cory Cross, who looked absolutely retarded all night; I’m aware that some guys get unfairly targeted by fans and dogpiled by the media, and far be it from me to participate in that, but seriously: Cross is terrible. He was beaten to every puck, missed countless checks, one of which led to Calgary’s goal, a border-line shorthander by Lombardi. I’m at a loss as to why people keep saying Alexei Semenov is on the bubble this year when Cross is so clearly not needed. Anyhow.
As for the new rules, I’m still a little confused as to how the league is handling offsides (there were a few non-calls that I couldn’t figure out), but other than that, the changes look like there going to work nicely: there was an expected parade to the penalty box throughout the game—22 penalties in all, including a checking from behind major for Jarret Stoll, who scored the Oilers’ regulation goal and had an impressive night at both ends overall. As well, the lack of red line forces the players to spread out substantially, leading to a smoother and faster transitions from end to end, which was also a good thing. And shootouts? Shootouts are awesome. I’ll admit to being one of the grumbly “purists” who was opposed to the idea at first, but after seeing it in action and the playoff atmosphere it brought to the building—the entire crowd standing and screaming as Smyth closed in, erupting when the backhanded the puck five-hole on a frozen Krahn—buddy, you’ll wonder why you ever settled for a tie.
But by far the best (or, at least, most Edmontonian) moment of the evening came after the last goal was scored and we were filing out into the concourse, when my friends and I happened to pass a group of four or five Flames fans who were completely surrounded by Edmontonians chanting “Go Oilers Go!” at them, and there’s this one chowderhead with a Smyth jersey and wet, spiky hair just screaming so hard at them that his face was turning blood-red and his eyes were tearing. I almost felt sorry for those Flamers; it must’ve been pretty awkward in there, what with the no physical contact or verbal interaction outside of unwavering slogan-chanting... like being stuck in the eye of a hurricane of pure, unadulterated, sports-fueled crazy.
Welcome back, everybody.
TOP THREE OILERS
1. Robbie Schremp: The game’s first star and a surprisingly potent offensive force all night.
2. Radek Dvorak: Played at top speed, dangled like crazy, and was an indispensable part of the penalty kill.
3. Jarret Stoll: Whatever Stoll was doing in the off-season, it worked. Looked every bit the hard-checking defensive centre the Oilers hoped he’d be.
3. Jani Rita: No one’s disputing the guy’s speed, but he was a total non-factor at both ends. This could be Rita's last stand.
2. Marc-Andre Bergeron: Bergeron (or "Burgertime," as everyone should start calling him right now) gave up the puck all night and couldn’t keep it together on the PP point.
1. Cory Cross: Slow, indecisive and seemingly incapable of finishing his checks. Looked lost and desperate most of the night.
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