The Oilers wrapped up their 2nd consecutive 30th-place finish on April 10t, 2011. Two days later Ryan Nugent-Hopkins turned 18, and 73 days after he became a man the Oilers drafted him first overall.
Today all Oilers fans woke up giddy with anticipation of tonight’s tilt, thinking that the last six months have seemed like an eternity. Now imagine how nervous, excited and jacked you’d feel if you were an 18-year-old making his NHL debut tonight.
Welcome to Nugent-Hopkins’ world.
I asked the baby-faced young phenom if he could put into words what was going through his mind prior to his first NHL game. He looked at me, his eyes grew big, he exhaled deeply and a big smile came across his face. "I really don’t think I can describe it in any words. I’m extremely excited about. A few years ago I didn’t think it was even realistic, but now it is surreal and I can’t wait to get going," he said.
He has yet to taste the bitter flavour of defeat, or feel the power and strength of a regular season game, but just like everyone reading this he can’t wait for the puck to drop tonight.
He joked that the waiting over the past few days has been excruciating. "I watched the game on Thursday and ever since I’ve been super pumped to play. The days are sure dragging on, and I’m trying to stay calm, but the anticipation is really tough (he laughs), it’s killing me."
The best part about a new season is the unbridled enthusiasm of the players and the fans. And it isn’t just the rookies who are excited. Tonight will be Ryan Smyth’s 15th season-opener, but the veteran of 1069 regular season games seemed just as stoked as young Nugent-Hopkins.
"It’s going to be tough to beat my excitement," beamed Smyth, who said he’s been revved up ever since getting a sneak preview of the Oilers entrance video at Daryl Katz’ house on Friday night during a team dinner.
"The emotions, energy and excitement that the fans bring give me chills. It’s a great city to play in, a fabulous play to raise your family and play this wonderful game. Seeing myself in a game situation wearing an Oiler jersey again really gave me butterflies. I can’t wait to get going. Home openers are always special, but this one, obviously, has much more meaning for me."
***Those two fans are just as pumped as Hall. That’s why players love to play in front of passionate fans.**
Taylor Hall and Ales Hemsky along with every Oiler fan, is hoping this type of celebration will be a regular occurance, starting tonight. If the Oilers are going to be in the playoff hunt come March then Hemsky and Hall will need to be the offensive leaders. Putting them together means they, along with Nugent-Hopkins, will usually face the opposition’s best defenders, so a part of me wonder if Tom Renney will split them up at some point to free up one of them.
He’ll go with H2N tonight and we’ll see how they fare along with the rest of the tonight’s lineup.
Smyth – Belanger – Eberle
Paajarvi – Horcoff – Omark
Jones – Lander – Hordichuk
Peckham – Smid
Sutton – Gilbert
Barker – Petry
Eric Belanger wasn’t feeling well yesterday (rumblings of maybe a sore back) and didn’t practice, but he will go tonight. Dubnyk getting the start is a surprise to me, a pleasant one, but still a surprise. Barring injury, I suspect Dubnyk starts 45-50 games. It also looks like Darcy Hordichuk will dress instead of Lennart Petrell. Hordichuk was very good on the forecheck in the preseason, but yesterday he spent ten minutes in the dressing room with Louie Debrusk discussing what Steve MacIntyre does in fights.
Hordichuk is a better player than MacIntyre, and Renney will use him more, but if he has to fight the former Oiler tough guy he’ll be the underdog.
Also Smid and Peckham both prefer to play the left side, but it looks like Smid will be playing the right side with Peckham tonight. He’s not very comfortable on that side of the ice. I’ll be watching closely to see if they stay together and how much, if any, Smid struggles in the defensive zone on the right side.
I spoke with Renney regarding the Oilers’ PP woes and their horrific shots/PP ratio. He said he was aware it was an issue, but didnt’ know they’d been the worst in the league for four consecutive seasons. We talked about the importance of establishing a shot on the point, so the PK forwards would cheat up high, thus opening more room down below, but he talked about a switch he made 25 games into his first season coaching Jaromir Jagr.
"Jags always set up on the sidewall. Every team knew he set up there and our PP became too predictable. So I got him to move off the wall and roam around like Brett Hull did. By giving him freedom to roam it opened up a lot of room for everyone else. Teams still focused on him because of his skill, but that focus freed up our other guys and our PP took off."
The Rangers finished with the 8th best PP that year. Of course the following two years they were just middle of the pack, but it did work well that year. Once Renney finished telling me that story I asked him if he’d urge Hemsky to move around more, rather than just set up on the halfboards.
He smiled at me and said, "We might look at that."
I’ve gotten to know Renney well the past few years, and when he gives you that grin it means you’re onto something. I doubt Hemsky will roam as much as Hull did, and probably not as much as Jagr, but Renney promised that there would be more motion on the PP this year. Look for them to swing the puck side-to-side with Hemsky on one side and Nugent-Hopkins on the other. RNH’s passing skills are ridiculously good. He has great vision, and in the preseason I watched him surprise a few teammates with passes they weren’t expecting. They will be more prepared now that they’ve seen what he can do.
The PP units looked like this the past few days.
Hall – RNH – Hemsky
Eberle – Smyth – Omark
Paajarvi – Petry/Gilbert
The 2nd unit didn’t have a defined centre, but Omark will be the guy to set it up, Eberle is the shooter and Smyth will stand in the front of the net. Once Ryan Whitney returns we might see a few other looks as well. Renney was very clear in stating he has confidence in three units, so if guys don’t want to follow his game plan he won’t hesitate to pull them off the PP.
RAISING THE CURTAIN
GAME DAY PREDICTION: Rexall will be rocking, the beers will be flowing, the fans will love the new video intro and Renney will improve to 8-0 in season openers. Just like last year, the Oilers will come out firing and Hall will open up the scoring. The Oilers will take advantage of a tired Penguins team, playing their 3rd game in four nights, and will improve to 16-6-3 in home openers. Oilers win 4-2.
OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: With Sidney Crosby in the pressbox, I’m certain we won’t see any gents dressing up in wedding dresses. The 7 o’clock start will allow all of you to gorge yourself on turkey, but still give you plenty of time to hunker down with the family to watch Nugent-Hopkins’ debut.
NOT-SO-OBVIOUS GAME DAY PREDICTION: The Hanson Brothers are in town tonight at the Pint Off Whyte, and Wanye was planning to go until he sold his body for a pair of tickets. Midway through the second period while walking to the washroom, Steve Carlson (Steve Hanson, #17 in movie) will have his glasses knocked off by a wayward chicken wing. Instantly Carlson becomes enraged, and at the young age of 56 he’ll start squinting/searching for the culprit.
He won’t have to scale the glass and start punching innocent bystanders though. Instead a table of loyal Nation readers/posters admit to the errant wing toss. Dakin, Ender, Bucknuck, Arch, Wax Riley and host of others had been at the Pint since 3 o’clock mapping out all the scenarios necessary for the Oilers to make the playoffs, and somehow a wing got thrown in Carlson’s direction. As Carlson walks over, his glasses stained, but not broken, they all simultaneously point to one another. Carlson is floored at their team unity. He’s never seen a group so willing to thrown one another under the bus or a seemingly small issue. "Welcome to the Nation Steve," they blurt out while scrambling to find a sharpie so he’ll sign their foreheads, chests and shirts.
After he leaves they all swear to an oath that they will never "out" the original wing tosser. The secret will stay at the Pint.