Hockey isn’t meant to be played in empty buildings with tarped sections of seats and piped in crowd noise. It’s meant to be played as it was last night, with a revved-up Mike Smith pumping his arm to celebrate a 3-2 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place with, as a bonus, La Bamba blaring in the aftermath.
So it went as the Edmonton Oilers opened their 2021-22 schedule with live bodies in the seats, two points and all the storylines you could hope for in a debut like this – just pick one. There was Jesse Puljujarvi, he of greatly raised expectations, scoring the 1-0 goal. There was newcomer Zach Hyman, a buzzsaw busting ass on most shifts and making it 2-0 with a power play tap-in in his first game since coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Many eyes on Duncan Keith, who is the only player on the roster older than Evan Bouchard. Keith survived being run over by skyscraper on skates Tyler Myers. Then, there was Kyle Turris, who is coming off a distinctly disappointing first season with the Oilers. He scored what would stand as the shootout winner thanks to Smith. If there’s a comeback story waiting to be written, Turris is it.
It wasn’t close to perfect, but all in all, it was a rousing debut — the pre-game show, a blown 2-0 lead in the third period and all — for the latest edition of the Oilers put together by GM Ken Holland. In the end, the crowd filed out into the night happy with the two points and buzzing about what comes next. As it should be.
WHAT THEY SAID
“For me it’s the little things,” said Hyman, who finished a goalmouth feed from Leon Draisaitl. “When you’re going on the forecheck and you make a play and the fans realize it. Every hit, there’s sound in the building. There’s life. You score a goal, and the roof’s gonna come off. Hockey is meant to be played in front of fans. In my first game as an Edmonton Oiler, it was awesome to see how passionate the fans are. A great first experience, being an Oiler.”
Hyman made plenty of noise on his own. As advertised, he was hard on the forecheck, he went to the paint. In all, Hyman played 17:29, he scored the PP gimme and he killed penalties. I really liked Puljujarvi too. His arms-raised goal celebration was poster-worthy. The bison stuff and the infectious smile is good fun, but if Puljujarvi delivers the way a lot of people think he might, he’s going to own this town, or at least share it with 97 and 29.
I’ve always had an interest in Turris because I went to school with his dad Bruce, and I played lacrosse against him. Bruce, who was also a terrific basketball player, ended up inducted in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame (I did not). Like his old man, Turris was also a lacrosse player before switching full time to hockey. All that aside, his first season here, as we know, was anything but great. On waivers last week, Turris is looking for a turnaround.
“It’s really big,” Turris said of showing coach Dave Tippett last season was a one off. “I’ll be the first to admit I had a bad year last year. Coming back, I want to prove myself. That’s what I’m working towards doing. To get the shift in overtime and to be out in the shootout, it definitely helps to build the confidence and it’s something I have to take advantage of.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Oilers didn’t play anywhere near a perfect game against the Canucks, but they got the points and there was a crowd there to see it. Wednesday signalled, I hope, the first step in a return to normal for Oilers’ faithful. The next one is Saturday against the Calgary Flames, when we’ll get another look at Hyman, Turris, Bouchard and how that Keith-Cody Ceci pairing looks.