It’s more than a little ironic how playing in a stadium synonymous with defeat — home of the longest losing streak in North American pro sports — is exactly what the Edmonton Oilers need right now.
But that’s the plan.
If everything goes the way they hope, which would be a first for this season, Sunday’s Heritage Classic cold war against the equally-mediocre Calgary Flames is where the Oilers will emerge from the quicksand and get on with the business of winning some games.
The theory kind of makes sense. Normally, this game would be played under the stifling pressure of sitting 31st in the NHL with one win in seven games. It would take place under a dark cloud of fear — of losing again, of being booed off the ice again and of letting what was supposed to be a dream season plunge further into an inexplicable nightmare.
Playing under that kind of stress is never easy. It’s like the difference between trying to sink a six-foot putt and trying to sink a six-foot putt with a gun to your head.
But thanks to the Heritage Classic, the Oilers get to call a time out on the season. They can skate onto the ice at Commonwealth Stadium in the brisk October chill, soak up the atmosphere, savour the moment and forget for one night about the weight of the world being on their shoulders.
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They still need a win, badly, but on Sunday night it’s just about playing some hockey and having some fun, which is precisely what they need to be doing right now.
“If we don’t use this as an opportunity, then I don’t know what we’re doing,” said Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “This is a great opportunity here. We bring our families and kind of just take a step back and enjoy it for what it is. It’s a great opportunity and we need to pounce on it.”
Exactly. This is a flashback to all of the outdoor games they played as kids, even though they were all enrolled in elite programs as kids and probably never saw an outdoor rink in their lives. Still, it’s the thought that counts.
Even though there have been 37 of these games before, playing a regular-season game outside in your own town is still a rare and very cool opportunity. These are the times in their careers that players relish.
Pressure? What pressure.
“I think almost everybody has somebody here, friends, family, people you care about or who have helped you along the way to get to where you are at,” said Oilers winger Zach Hyman.
“If you can’t get up and show up for a game like Sunday…, this is a game that we all are going to be ready for and need to be ready for.”
That’s the plan, anyway. The Oilers see this game as a springboard. All that remains to be seen is whether or not there is any water in the pool.
“We are a very confident group,” said Hyman. “We know how good of a team we are. We haven’t shown our best game yet and that’s frustrating, but I think with this outdoor game, it is an event where we can go out there and we can work and just focus on one game.
“Everyone has to take it on themselves to bring the best version of themselves on Sunday.”
The game is still every bit as crucial outside as it would be inside Rogers Place, only the sight lines will be much, much worse. The Oilers are likely already out of the running for first place in the Pacific Division and cannot afford to let second place get away from them as well.
They cannot afford to fall to 1-6-1 and have their special evening ruined by another lacklustre stumble. What’s before them now is a unique opportunity to take a breath and deliver a performance that rises to the occasion.
“We obviously know the outdoor game is a spectacle, but our focus is to win the hockey game,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “That’s the only thing that matters to us and that’s what we’ll be thinking about.”
“Not just for the event, but for the season,” added Hyman. “For where we are as a team. We wanted to start the year off better but we are here now and we are ready to elevate.”
It helps (or hurts, maybe), that they are playing a Calgary team that is also waist deep in the muck. The Flames are desperate and hungry at 2-5-1, have lost four straight and, as luck would have it, were also booed off their own ice last game.
Everything the Oilers are feeling, Calgary is feeling, too.
So this game will definitely have more juice than a normal outdoor showcase.
“We need to find our game,” said Hyman. “We know what our game is, we know our identity and we have to get back to that. If we play our best game and play how we can play the rest takes care of itself.”
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