The well-documented passion of Edmonton Oilers fans is apparently matched only by their uncommonly high pain threshold.
Still, there are limits. After all, the local fans have endured through six non-playoff NHL years, so who among them was ready for what hit them square in their gobsmacked faces on Tuesday night?
Not many, judging by the way the faithful booed their young, gifted Oilers off the Rexall Place ice surface after the first period, their team down 6-1 and outshot 17-7 by a slick, veteran group of San Jose Sharks out for blood and two all-important, early season points.
In the end, it was a 6-3 Sharks victory, which sounds more respectable. That 6-1 hole was way too much for the young Oilers, who had rebounded from a 2-0 deficit in Vancouver to gut out a 3-2 shootout victory on Sunday night.
No, the opening period was ugly, a 20-minute nightmare that left the sellout crowd of 16,839 in stunned disbelief. It was cruel, really, mostly because it was so unexpected.
“That’s not us,” said right winger Jordan Eberle. “We took a lot of penalties, which hurt, for sure.
“They took advantage of it. For us, that’s not our game. When we’re in the box, it kills our pace, it kills our momentum. Sure enough, they scored a few goals.
“But even five-on-five, we were giving up way too much at the beginning. We were turning pucks over, it just wasn’t us. We showed who we are in the second and third periods.”
Never mind the beer vouchers, half-price merchandise, eye-catching team jerseys encased in clear blocks of ice outside the arena. They were fine gestures of goodwill from the apologetic Oilers ownership and management, without a doubt.
Forget the apology delivered by Oilers president Patrick LaForge, who seemed both sincere and preternaturally mellow in welcoming the fans back in his brief video presentation.
Listen, after a 113-day lockout, the fans filled Rexall to cheer for a team about to bust out of the league’s basement, finally. Or so the narrative went. What a disappointment.
It goes much deeper than high expectations for a club that had finished 30th, 30th and 29th in the NHL the last three years, but had reaped talent like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov as recompense.
General manager Steve Tambellini had lifted expectations by signing much sought-after free-agent defenceman Justin Schultz last summer to provide a gifted power-play quarterback.
The long-suffering Oilers fan, pummeled by circumstance year-after-year since that magical run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final seven years ago, arrived at Rexall Place full of hope and expectation not seen since June 2006.
That golden time happened four coaches, an ownership change, and the trade and repatriation of Ryan Smyth ago. Add to that four wasting years of “bamboo-shoots-up-the-fingernails” negotiations on a downtown arena to house the glittering new assemblage of talent, and Oilers fans know suffering, you bet your life.
So it was that as the goals kept finding the back of the net behind Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk in the first period Tuesday night, a pair each by Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau, others by Dan Boyle and Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the fans were hurt, bewildered, disappointed, angry.
Can humans go through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grieving in a 20-minute period of hockey? If they can, then that was the latest indignity Oilers fans endured on opening night.
Oh, yes, they got a glimpse of the magic of Yakupov, who one-timed a tape-to-tape pass from centre Sam Gagner on an Oilers’ power play at 8:25 of the first period, cutting the early San Jose lead to 2-1. Yakupov’s one-timer is going to become a familiar NHL sight, too. And a nightmare vision for NHL goaltenders.
At 14:25 of the second period, there was Schultz hammering home a slapshot from the right-wing circle during an Oilers’ five-on-three power play to narrow the San Jose lead to 6-2.
So, the new kids come as advertised, scoring their first NHL goals in front of the home fans, a preview of coming attractions, or so the fans fervently hope.
Hall brought the fans to their feet, too, with an early third-period goal, his first of the season, to narrow the deficit to 6-3.
“It’s a lesson for us that we can’t just go out there and do whatever we want and win games,” Dubnyk said. “There are a lot of really good hockey teams in this league.
“And that’s why it’s tight to make the playoffs, right down to the wire every year. We need to realize that for us to win, we have to go out there and play one way and one way only and that’s what we did after the first period.
“Obviously, it’s a different game when it’s 6-1 after one, but from there the only thing we can do is go out and get back to the way that we have to play (two-way game). I thought we did that and I’m sure we’ll carry that into Thursday.”
Good thinking. Thursday night the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are in town.
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