Crawling into bed with freshly clean sheets, a long hug from a loved one, that first, perfect bite of barbequed steak…we always hear it’s the little things in life that make a big difference and today that rings very true.
I love sports, especially hockey, and the return of the NHL is one of those little things we needed right now.
It is an emotional boost during a trying time. And it isn’t just that the NHL is back, it returns in playoff form.
1. I’ve never been this excited for an NHL exhibition game of hockey in my life. It has been 139 days since we’ve seen hockey, and while that is shorter than a normal off season in Edmonton the previous 14 years (excluding 2017), the anticipation for tonight’s game is unusually high. You can feel the excitement. Tonight’s game is much bigger than an exhibition game. It is a big step in the normalcy of sporting fans lives and I can’t wait to watch.
2. In case you have forgotten: the Oilers are a good team. Better than you think. Since the calendar turned to 2020 the Oilers tied for the fifth most points in the NHL, had the sixth best points percentage, they were second in goals for/game at 3.45 and 10th in goals against/game at 2.83.
3. In 2020, Leon Draisaitl led the league with 48 points in 29 games, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was fifth with 37 points and Connor McDavid was 11th with 33 points and he missed seven games. Kailer Yamamoto scored 25 points in 26 games since being recalled from the American Hockey League. His 0.96 points/game is the same as Johnny Gaudreau’s (27 points in 28 games).
4. The Oilers and Flames played four times in a span of 37 days between December 27th and February 1st, but the final three games in 2020 re-energized the Battle of Alberta. On January 11th Matthew Tkachuk hammered Zack Kassian late in the second period. It was a legal hit, by the rule book, but it was cheap and Kassian jumped Tkachuk and threw some punches while Tkachuk turtled. Kassian ended up earning a two-game suspension. That led to a massive build up for their next game on January 29th. The excitement in the days prior to that game reminded me of the 1980s when every Oilers/Flames game was filled with animosity. Tkachuk stepped up and fought Kassian on the 29th, and the Flames won in a shootout.
Three days later the Oilers spanked the Flames 8-3 in Calgary and that game was punctuated by Tkachuk fighting Ethan Bear and Mike Smith pummelling Flames goalie Cam Talbot in a rare goalie scrap. The 22 days between January 11th and February 1st was the most fun I’ve had covering the BOA. And while tonight is only an exhibition game, and I don’t expect any shenanigans, there is a small part of me hoping the rivalry boils over again.
5. Both teams will want to knock some rust off before the playoffs begin on Saturday. Both teams will play their starting rosters, plus an extra two players, as the league has allowed 13 forwards and seven D-men to be dressed tonight.
6. Darnell Nurse didn’t play in the Colby Cave Memorial scrimmage on Saturday, but that was precautionary. Riley Sheahan left the game and didn’t finish the final 30 minutes, and he didn’t skate yesterday and is unlikely to play tonight. However, I’m told right now the expectation is he will be ready for Saturday.
7. Kris Russell and Matt Benning will be the third pairing to start the playoffs, but Philip Broberg stood out during camp. It was only training camp and he’s yet to play opposing players. I’ve seen many players look good in training camp and exhibition games but struggle in NHL regular season games, so I am tempering my expectations of Broberg. We probably won’t see Broberg much in the playoffs, unless there is a rash of injuries, and we won’t see him to start next season. However, with the NHL starting late Broberg could come to the NHL after the SEL season concludes and he’d still have three months to play in the NHL/AHL.
8. It is amazing how suddenly the Oilers have real depth on the blueline after a decade of having none. And not just players who could be a #6. Broberg, Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard have potential to top-four defender potential. I wonder if we see Ken Holland deal one of his D-men for a scoring winger in the near future.
9. Speaking of defence, the Flames will start the playoffs with five left-shot defenders. Right-shooting Travis Hamonic opted out of the playoffs, so that means TJ Brodie and Erik Gustafsson will play the right side to start. Some players are comfortable on their off-side, but certain situations can be a disadvantage on your off-side. Add in that Hamonic averaged 21:12/game for the Flames, which was second most on the team behind Mark Giordano. Hamonic isn’t flashy, but he played the most PK/game on the team at 3:07 and it will be interesting to see how his absence impacts the Flames in their series against the hard forechecking Winnipeg Jets.
10. I wrote prior to camp to expect McDavid to be flying after three months of proper training. He was noticeably quicker than he was during last season, which sounds crazy, but it looked that way from my vantage point. I’m expecting McDavid to be dominant against the Blackhawks. Don’t be surprised if he scores tonight. In 20 career games against the Flames he has 15 goals.
11. James Neal is completely healthy for the first time since last October. After playing though a broken toe, and then sitting out with a high ankle sprain he has looked very good in camp. I think he is going to be much better than many expect in the playoffs.
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