I love the sport, especially hockey, and the return of the NHL is one of those little things we needed right now.
It’s an emotional boost during a difficult time. And it’s not just that the NHL is back, it’s back in playoff form.
1. I have never been so excited about an NHL hockey game in my life. It’s been 139 days since we’ve seen hockey, and while it’s shorter than a normal season in Edmonton for the past 14 years (excluding 2017), expectations for this game evenings are unusually high. You can feel the excitement. Tonight’s game is much bigger than an exhibition game. It’s a big step in the normalcy of sports fans’ lives and I can’t wait to watch it.
2. In case you forgot: The Oilers are a good team. Better than you think. Since the schedule turned to 2020, the Oilers have the fifth most points in the NHL, had the sixth best point percentage, were second in goals per game at 3.45 and 10th. for goals against / match with 2.83.
3. In 2020, Leon Draisaitl led the league with 48 points in 29 games, while Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was fifth with 37 points and Connor McDavid 11th with 33 points and missed seven games. Kailer Yamamoto has scored 25 points in 26 games since his recall from the American Hockey League. His 0.96 point / game is the same as that of Johnny Gaudreau (27 points in 28 games).
4. The Oilers and Flames have played four times in 37 days between Dec. 27 and Feb. 1, but the last three games of 2020 reignited the battle for Alberta. On January 11, Matthew Tkachuk hammered Zack Kassian at the end of the second period. It was a legal hit, according to the rulebook, but it was cheap and Kassian jumped Tkachuk and threw punches while Tkachuk tortured. Kassian ended up getting a two-game suspension. This led to a massive build-up for their next game on January 29. The excitement of the days leading up to this game reminded me of the 1980s, when every Oilers / Flames game was filled with animosity. Tkachuk stepped in and fought Kassian on the 29th, and the Flames won in a shootout.
Three days later, the Oilers spanked the Flames 8-3 in Calgary and that game featured Tkachuk fighting Ethan Bear and Mike Smith defeating Flames goalie Cam Talbot in a rare goalie break. The 22 days between January 11 and February 1 were the most fun I have had to cover FOB. And while tonight is just an exhibition game, and I don’t expect any shenanigans, there is a small part of me that hopes the rivalry will return.
5. Both teams will want to remove the rust before the playoffs start on Saturday. Both teams will play their starting lineup, plus two more players, as the league has allowed 13 forwards and seven D-men to be dressed tonight.
6. Darnell Nurse didn’t play in the Colby Cave Memorial scrum on Saturday, but it was a precaution. Riley Sheahan is out of the game and hasn’t completed the last 30 minutes, and he didn’t skate yesterday and he’s unlikely to play tonight. However, I am now told that it is expected to be ready for Saturday.
7. Kris Russell and Matt Benning will be the third couple to start the playoffs, but Philip Broberg stood out during camp. It was only a training camp and he has yet to play against opposing players. I’ve seen a lot of players look good in training camps and exhibition games, but they struggle in regular season NHL games, so I’m tempering my expectations of Broberg. We probably won’t see much of Broberg in the playoffs, unless there’s an injury rash, and we won’t see him start next season. However, with the departure of the NHL, Broberg could join the NHL after the SEL season ends and he would still have three months to play in the NHL / AHL.
8. It’s amazing how much real depth the Oilers have on the blue line after a decade without having any. And not just players who could be No.6. Broberg, Caleb Jones and Evan Bouchard have potential to become top four defenders. I wonder if we see Ken Holland selling one of his D-men for a scoring winger in the near future.
9. Speaking of defense, the Flames will start the playoffs with five defensemen on the left. Travis Hamonic, who shoots right, has chosen not to make the playoffs, which means TJ Brodie and Erik Gustafsson will play on the right side to start. Some players are comfortable on their offside, but there are situations that can be inconvenient for your offside. Add to that that Hamonic was averaging 21:12 / game for the Flames, who were second on the team behind Mark Giordano. Hamonic isn’t flashy, but he played the team’s most PK / game at 3:07 and it will be interesting to see how his absence impacts the Flames in their streak against the Winnipeg Jets.
10. I wrote before the camp to expect McDavid will fly after three months of proper training. He was visibly faster than last season, which sounds crazy, but it looked like that from my perspective. I expect McDavid to be dominant against the Blackhawks. Don’t be surprised if he scores tonight. In 20 career games against the Flames, he has scored 15 goals.
11. James Neal is in perfect health for the first time since last October. After playing with a broken toe, then sitting down with a sprained ankle, he looked great in camp. I think he’s going to be a lot better than many expect in the playoffs.