MacKinnon: Many happy returns as Oilers hit the ice at Rexall Place
NHL team thrill faithful fans in season-opening game
EDMONTON - Here came the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night with a clean slate, and feeling the fans’ unbridled optimism about the home team that may be the most inexhaustible renewable resource in any of the NHL’s seven Canadian cities.
The 2013-14 Oilers opened against their old rival, the Winnipeg Jets, to a minimum of fanfare and hoopla and virtually no reference to their glorious past.
Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins’ buddy Simon Whitfield, the much-decorated Olympic triathlete, was in the locker-room Tuesday morning, not one of the past Oilers greats.
The likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri were as much in evidence as the images of their past exploits that Eakins ordered moved from the locker-room to the Rexall Place concourse, to be replaced with pictures of the current crop of Oilers.
The lone exception was an understated, classy and poignant video homage to the late Paul Lorieau, their longtime anthem singer who succumbed to throat cancer last summer.
The tribute reprised what many consider Lorieau’s finest moment, the night during the run to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, when he started O Canada, then held the microphone up for the fans to finish the job.
The fans remembered and were as lusty on opening night as they had been the last time the Oilers made the playoffs, let alone made a run to the cusp of a Cup victory, only to fall to the Carolina Hurricanes at the last.
Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky are the only vestiges of that team, one measure of the ‘clean slate’ mentality that first-year NHL bench boss Eakins is insisting on with this version of the Oilers.
Another illustration of Eakins’ ‘fresh start’ approach was seeing both the 37-year-old Smyth and Hemsky, trade bait all off-season, flanking Taylor Hall on the first line, a converted left winger filling in with No. 1 centre Ryan Nugent-Hopkins still out rehabbing the left shoulder he had surgically repaired last season.
Hemsky ripped home a beauty of a wrist shot at 3:38 of the second period to give the Oilers a 3-2 lead and lift the fans from their seats, calling to mind the Hemsky of 2006, rather than the streaky, injury slowed winger of recent years. Hall and Smyth assisted on that one, so the unit is off to a strong start.
There were eight new faces in the Oilers lineup and four of them wasted no time getting their names on the scoresheet in the opener.
Luke Gazdic, a tough guy claimed on waivers from Dallas, opened the scoring when at 2:21 of the first period when he spaded a backhander through the legs of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec.
Centre Boyd Gordon, another off-season pickup, tipped in a Justin Schultz wrist shot from the point on an Oilers power play to tie the game 2-2 at 18:08 of the opening period after Jets goals by Mark Scheifele and Bryan Little had given the visitors a 2-1 lead.
Jesse Joensuu, who had a hard time expressing the thrill he would feel in his first game for the Oilers, scored a second-period goal to make the score 4-2 Oilers.
One game is hardly a large enough sample to judge whether this Oilers team will finally scratch the fans’ seven-year non-playoff itch.
You had to think most fans were hugely anxious just to get a load of the re-tooled team, perhaps starting with freshly minted team captain Andrew Ference.
Eakins, who hand-picked Ference for the role, has slightly more than 1,000 pro games on his resume as a player, while Ference amassed 120 games of NHL playoff experience. That playoff history includes three trips to the Stanley Cup final: 2004, when Ference and the Calgary Flames lost to Tampa in seven games; a Stanley Cup title in 2011 with the Boston Bruins; and a finals loss to the champion Chicago Blackhawks last season.
That and the fact Ference and Eakins share a passion for fitness may explain why Eakins chose him to be captain. The coach sure isn’t going to be able to impart much NHL playoff wisdom to the troops, that’s for sure.
This Oilers team has the ability to qualify for the playoffs, even in a tougher division with the likes of the Los Angeles Kings, the San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks.
A cluster of players have to fill up their clean slate with improved play, though, starting with goaltender Devan Dubnyk, the club’s No. 1 netminder.
He got off to a slow start, failing to stop Scheifele’s power-play shot. Cut him slack. It was opening night. Dubnyk wants to demonstrate he’s an elite goaltender, though. Check back on his progress after 20 games.
He’ll have plenty of games in which to fill his clean slate, stake his claim to full-time elite status.
Same goes for others, like newcomer on defence, Anton Belov and centres Will Acton and Mark Arcobello and sniper David Perron, who is expecting to have a banner offensive year with the Oilers, free from the shackles of structure placed on him in St. Louis by head coach Ken Hitchcock.
It’s early days, obviously. But the Oilers initial scribblings on Eakins’ clean slate included a lot of positives.
© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal
Jets’ Chris Thorburn, left, hits the boards after missing his check on Oilers defenceman Nick Schultz as Edmonton battles the Winnipeg Jets during their NHL season opener at Rexall place in Edmonton on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013.
Photograph by: EDW Bruce Edwards, Edmonton Journal