The biggest fear the about the Edmonton Oilers playing outdoors is that it’s a dangerous place to be when the sky is falling.
But whether it was the occasion lifting the Oilers, the Oilers rising to the occasion or a brilliant blend of both, the fresh-air spectacle at Commonwealth Stadium was exactly what they needed to breathe life back into their season.
The fact they were able to plunge the slumping Calgary Flames into even further misery at the same time made Sunday’s Heritage Classic even more special.
“That’s more of the hockey we expect out of ourselves,” said Oilers forward Leon Drasaitl after a convincing 5-2 triumph in front of 55,411 fans. “Through the entire lineup I thought we were really, really good. That’s the way we play. This night, with everything around makes it more special.
“All in all it was just a great night, but the two points, the win, make it a lot better. To everyone who set this up it was an amazing job.”
There is still a way to go for the 2-5-1 Oilers to make things right after their slow start, but the this is a big first step.
“We wanted to get back to the team we are,” said rambunctious winger Evander Kane. “The boys really embraced it, used it as some great fuel. Coming into this game there was a lot of talk and I thought were handled it well and got on top of them quick
“You want to enjoy the festivities, you want to embrace the atmosphere, but at the same time we were here for two points and we got it done.”
It was a perfect night for outdoor pond hockey, with Connor McDavid back in the Edmonton lineup, the temperature a crisp 2 degrees Celsius at puck drop — practically balmy compared with the -20C in 2003 — and all of the pre-game festivities going off without a hitch.
It became evident very early on that there was no way the Oilers were going to let the occasion get the better of them. They stormed out hard and fast and put the Flames on their heels before the game was five minutes old.
It was 3-1 Edmonton at the end of the first period and at the halfway mark of the second period the shots were 22-7.
The only thing keeping Calgary alive was goaltender Jacob Markstrom. That turned out to be a problem for the Oilers because Calgary kept hanging around and hanging around and managed to make it 3-2 after 40 minutes, turning what could have been a blowout into a 20-minute sprint to the finish.
The Oilers responded by shutting the Flames down and scoring two goals of their own.
“We’ve been talking about (making the most of this) for a couple of days and we did it tonight,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse. “These games are a lot of fun to be a part of. The win at the end of the day makes the experience all the more positive.”
Now that it’s over, and they won, the Oilers can truly savour the experience. And they will in the limited time they have, which isn’t much. After this, the season moves back inside and they are still only 2-5-1.
“It could be (the win that turns them around), but we can’t fall back into what we did the last couple of weeks,” said Draisaitl. “It’s a big night, a big win, but it’s only one game. We have some catching up to do. We’ll celebrate tonight and get ready for the next one.”
At first glance, the Oilers look a lot like a team that is finding its way and is about to make the push they need to get back in the NHL race. They needed this night, badly, and the fact they were able to rise up and make the most of it is a good sign.
So, we’ll see what happens.
“In a game like this, the stakes are higher, you put more into it,” said defenceman Mattias Ekholm. “There is more family. Everything is more. Everything is jacked up.
“It’s not a playoff game but it kind of has that vibe. If thought if we can get this one win it’s going to go a long way in the room. I thought we outplayed them for the most part of the game. I don’t think they had much five on five, which is a great sign for this team and hopefully something we can build off of.”
The poor Flames, meanwhile, have now lost five in a row and been outscored 16-5 over that stretch.
KANE RUNS WILD
Once again, Kane was a physical force out there, playing the antagonistic bully role to perfection. The points had been slow to come this season but he’s been making his mark in these games and most certainly left a few marks on some Flames players.
He finished with one goal, two assists, two minor penalties, six hits, six shots, plus two and more scrums than anyone on either team.
“He brought a lot of emotion to the game,” said Nurse. “He was going into the corners, running guys over. It shows the kind of player that he is. As a team you draw a lot of him when he’s bringing energy like that.”
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