I can tell you the exact moment it finally went right for the Oilers.
Alexandre Giroux had just taken a delightful/dopey kneeing penalty for nearly putting Daniel Sedin in the hospital: delightful because, well, he nearly put Daniel Sedin in the hospital, dopey because that was no penalty in any universe I've ever been to. Sedin was a study in wimpiness, and I'm a soccer fan so I know it when I see it: falling over, positively crumpling at the nothing blow from Giroux's hip, oh my god my career is over at the hands of this AHL plug, Giroux got two minutes for touching a superior player on the road in the pre-season and the miraculously healed Sedin scored the goal on the resulting power play.
Then there was Peter Schaefer's... thing, streaking down short handed and putting what wasn't really much of a slap shot through Devan Dubnyk. You think a guy who wears a trapper the size of a fridge door would be able to snare one of those but noooope, the puck (which was heading over the goal had Dubnyk simply ignored it) flutters through the top of Devan's glove and drops into the goal, like he were some Bizarro Grant Fuhr.
I'm sitting in section 322, and life is pain. The rage is crystalizing at the centre of my stomach, a hard, jagged black ball of hate, ripping through every fibre of my sanity. All about me, Canucks fans are doing the wave, which drives me mad at the best of times and turns me into a borderline serial killer when people are doing it during an Oilers powerplay. Jordan Eberle has the puck near the point, a guy in front of me stands up and throws his arms in the air like he was having some sort of spasm, and it's all I can do to not hurl him off the edge of the balcony. It would be so easy. I could even do that "wooooo!" thing after. My soul is black as pitch and twice as thick, my mind full of unspeakable evil. Look, here comes the wave again. Actually, maybe I'll throw myself off the balcony.
Then, of all people, Ryan O'Marra saves my bacon. He's an agitator but a welterweight and doesn't throw down that often: last year in the AHL he had one scrap with Ty Wishart. But Canucks prospect Kevin Connauton has just driven Colin McDonald into the boards hard, and as an Edmonton native Connauton should know better. O'Marra is displeased, Connauton is more-or-less his size, and the gloves come off.
It turns out the reason O'Marra doesn't fight often is that O'Marra isn't much of a fighter. He has little enough hand speed, and combined with his lack of size that's bad news. But he has Connauton's number on this one: two long right crosses, each connecting solidly with the Vancouver defenseman's jaw. The linesmen step in, much too quickly, but Connauton hasn't even gotten a punch away and is clearly sagging compared to the triumphant O'Marra.
That was the turning point. The Oilers, some of whom were slacking in the most appalling fashion, thought as one "there's nothing stopping us from winning this game." I felt my faith in the hockey gods slowly returning, unravelling the tightly-wound ball of fury I had been carrying in the pit of my stomach. And the wave stopped. When Ryan Whitney set up Gregory Stewart for the easiest breakaway you'll ever see, well, it was like it was preordained.
Nice try, Vancouver Canucks. But this time, those who were last shall be first.
After the game I had to look this up: I haven't been to a live NHL contest since March 13, 2003 when the Oilers took on the New York Islanders. But I went to this pre-season tilt pretty much on the spur of the moment, hoping to see the best and brightest of the Oilers' new generation wallop the miserable stiffs of the Vancouver Canucks.
I was in for a disappointment on so many levels. Of all the young saviours, only Jordan Eberle was in the lineup for Edmonton and he was stuck on a line with Alexandre Giroux and One-Arm Shawn Horcoff. Horcoff, Ryan Whitney, Jim Vandermeer, Zack Stortini, and Taylor Chorney were the only bona fide NHLers in evidence for the Oilers, while the Canucks countered with Roberto Luongo, both Sedin twins, Ryan Kesler, Christian Ehrhoff, Dan Hamhuis, Mikael Samuelsson, Alexandre Edler, Mason Raymond, a few more guys who I forget or don't care about. That's no surprise: NHL pre-season games for several years have been tilted in favour of the home team, who want to give their fans a thrill against a road side that has no reason to play all-out and is best served by blooding the pups a bit.
So imagine my delight when the Oilers came out strong. Throughout the evening the Canucks were trying to match their top line of Sedin, Sedin, and Sergei Shirokov against the Oilers' weakest unit of Steve MacIntyre, Chris Vande Velde, and Ben Ondrus. Tom Renney was not cool with this and tried what passed for power-vs.-power by throwing out the Horcoff line as soon as possible, but while the Sedins were out against the likes of MacIntyre they could pretty much move the puck at will. Horcoff and company did a surprisingly capable of sawing them off, but first blood actually went to the Vande Velde line: a dumb wrister from Ryan Whitney at the blue line that Luongo somehow allowed a huge rebound on and Ondrus tapped in the opportunistic chance.
Awful though MacIntyre was, Edmonton's worst line was probably Teemu Hartikainen, Ryan O'Marra, and Colin McDonald. The troika generated nothing offensively and were, at best, adequate defensively. Hartikainen had a torrid first period and was a contender for a Reverse Three Star, although he picked up the pace and would up having the best night of the three. Having seen him in person at last, I can see where the rap on Hartikainen's skating comes from: his straight line top speed is acceptable but he accelerates slowly and doesn't manoeuvre very well, meaning that in play inside one of the zones his lack of mobility is a detriment. He also got hit, a lot, and while he's a big body who knows how to take a check that's never a promising sign. But a lot of players have had pretty good careers while being a lot less mobile than Hartikainen. When the game was a bit more wide open in the third period he was able to get up a good head of steam and started to wear down the Canucks a bit. As for O'Marra and McDonald, well, we know by now what we have in them and we know it isn't much. No surprises there, aside from O'Marra's pleasant tryst with truculence. That said, they did do a good job as Renney's preferred line match against Vancouver's Kesler line, largely holding them in check.
I am accentuating the negative, though. For the most part, Edmonton's AHLers heavily outplayed Vancouver's AHLers (promising sign, Oklahoma City Barons fans!), Edmonton's NHLers outplayed Vancouver's NHLers, and even when Vancouver got NHLers against Edmonton AHLers, as long as it wasn't the Sedin line Edmonton usually came out ahead. Not one Oiler, not even the Reverse Three Stars, really played badly. There were mistakes, but they were scattered throughout the lineup and the team looked surprisingly composed and in control given the circumstances.
Taylor Chorney had one of the finest games I've ever seen him play. Some fans are blaming him for Daniel Sedin's goal that made it 2-1, as Chorney came up to engage Henrik Sedin and try to strip him of the puck on that penalty kill. I disagree. First, Zack Stortini had lost his stick and there was nobody else in position to check Henrik, who was stickhandling neatly and had a golden opportunity. Chorney not only did the right thing coming to check Sedin, he actually succeeded in knocking the puck off Sedin's stick. The problem was the rest of the team: Stortini had no stick so he gets a pass, but Ryan Whitney and the other Oilers forward essentially coasted forward uselessly while the Canucks went to the aid of the struggling Sedin. The result was Vancouver regaining possession, a five-bell scoring chance that Dubnyk somehow saved, and eventually Daniel Sedin's goal. Daniel beat Chorney to the puck flying through the air on the goal, but there are an awful lot of pretty good NHL defensemen who don't have the hand-eye coordination of Daniel Sedin.
Meanwhile, Chorney had a terrific game defensively; he cut out passes, cleared the zone, made life hell for the Canucks, and by the end of the game Renney was running him out to kill off the last minutes even though he was saddled with Jake Taylor as his defensive partner. Chorney was up for a (non-reverse!) star of the game in my book. If he had a flaw it was that the alleged offensive defenseman did very little on the power play but, then, apart from Ryan Whitney who did?
(Speaking of Ryan Whitney: the guy had three assists, stood up the Canucks at the blue line enough times that I lost count, almost single-handedly made the winning goal, nearly deprived us of having to watch Alexandre Giroux anymore with a friendly fire collision, and played the entire game while looking staggeringly bored. The kid's got talent. I give Steve Tambellini a lot more credit for the Lubomir Visnovsky trade now than I did when he made it.)
I was of course interested in Jordan Eberle, and while his counting numbers weren't up to much I caught glimpses of a few skills I hadn't expected from him. He really has got a marvelous playmaker's touch, sending clever deflection passes and catching his teammates in difficult passing lanes more than once. He also took a tremendous licking; in the first period Alexandre Bolduc seemed to make it his life's goal to carve up Eberle and gave Jordan a stick blade to the ribs so many times it's like Eberle was prepping for surgery. Towards the end of the first Eberle was also pasted, cleanly, at the blue line by a Canuck I neglected to get the number of. But every time he got up without chirping to the officials and got back in the play as expediently as physically possible. The hockey gods will surely reward such un-Alexandre Burrows-like behaviour, and I thought that he was actually the best part of his line. He didn't trouble the scorers and his shots were either wide or right into the goaltender, but anyone with his combination of a quick release, offensive awareness, and superb hand-eye coordination is going to be an 80 point scorer someday.
Very few Oilers stood out positively either. Gregory Stewart was passable but invisible aside from his moment of glory. Ben Ondrus scored one of the ugliest goals you will ever see and very nearly got another that was credited to Chris Vande Velde but was generally unpleasant to watch, aside from that. Brad Moran... I'm not sure what Brad Moran was for but I'd be fine if I never saw him again. In goal Martin Gerber made the saves and Devan Dubnyk made only one real error, so bravo to the netminders. Maybe my favourite Oiler was Zack Stortini. He wasn't the best, but the "A" on his chest did seem to inspire him against mediocre opposition: he was in full on bull-rush knock-guys-over pound-to-the-net-then-pound-back-out mode.
Stortini was probably involved in my favourite moment of the game not involving a goal or Ryan O'Marra dropping the gloves. Late in the second period Stortini was really getting in Luongo's business just before the whistle, and while Stortini was crouched down trying to shovel the puck out of Luongo's pads Mikael Samuelsson gave Stortini a good cross-check to the back. The whistle blew, and as it did Stortini froze, briefly, turned around, straightened up and looked at Samuelsson. I could see Samuelsson's expression as clear as crystal, and it was the look of a man who just realized he hadn't updated his will. Nothing came of it, as Stortini was a skill player by the Oilers' standards in this game and knew better than to take a selfish penalty, but it was entertaining. Much like the game itself, actually.
Copper & Blue Reverse Three Stars
18th Star: F Colin McDonald, who I don't want to pick on too much. As this was a strong game from the Oilers McDonald wasn't bad. He cruised up and down the wing, he didn't torment us, he didn't actually achieve anything, he took his shift and then his shift ended and I thought to myself "I thought Colin McDonald was playing tonight." If it weren't for the goals this could have been Ben Ondrus's spot, or Greg Stewart's. The Oilers were lousy with inoffensive, ineffective, but not-at-all bad forwards tonight.
In the end, McDonald gets the 18th star because the other guys scored and he didn't. He did decently playing in his own zone against some decent Canucks players. He has a surprisingly big slap shot, this guy, but it's not like he ever got it on target and since he's 6'3" and turns 26 in a week I suppose I shouldn't be surprised he was stronger than the other players out there. I can't say McDonald played badly, but I can't say he played well either.
19th Star: F Alexandre Giroux. Holy crap, was he a disappointment. I mean, you can only expect so much from a 29-year-old AHL lifer but all the same, I thought this guy was supposed to know how to score. He had 103 points with the Hershey Bears last season and I genuinely cannot comprehend how that might have happened. He spent the game turning the puck over, whipping passes into guys' skates, and loading up a wrist shot with such a slow release they had time to resurface the ice before he got it off. One-Arm Shawn wasn't exactly buzzing and going for goals but he was ten times the offensive player Giroux was.
I haven't watched many AHL games in the last few years, but I can't imagine it's bad enough that the Alexandre Giroux I witnessed last night could be a star. He was offensively utterly inert, and I have to do him the service of assuming that was an uncommonly poor game for him. And even here, he avoids twentieth star oblivion by having kept things simple in his own zone and not given up any good chances despite spending a lot of the game taking on the Sedin brothers.
20th Star: F Steve MacIntyre. I'm torn on how fair this one is. MacIntyre got torn to pieces when Alain Vigneault got the Sedin line out against him; at one point in the first period MacIntyre lost his stick and seemed utterly lost, skating from Canuck to Canuck with neither authority nor ambition as if entirely befuddled on what he should do next. He was, of course, not an offensive factor and on a night when he could have won at least one fan by pounding a hole in the ice with Ryan Kesler's head he did not once drop the gloves. He was clearly the worst Oiler and by a wide margin.
Yet, I mean, it's Steve MacIntyre. If you let him take a regular shift on the road against a team with skilled players that's gonna happen. Steve MacIntyre's job isn't to outchance, it's to punch things until they stop punching back. Tom Renney decided to use MacIntyre as an actual hockey player and it backfired, but me giving MacIntyre the twentieth star because of that seems as fair as if I gave him the twentieth star because Renney made him play in goal. It's not his fault he was put into a position he was fundamentally unsuited for.
Ah, well. Ultimately, I'm still bitter about the Oilers signing the plug, so twentieth star it is.
(Interestingly, MacIntyre is actually a pretty fair skater. That really surprised me: he was outpacing Vande Velde and Ondrus easily at times. This by no means makes him a good hockey player, of course. In Slap Shot the Hansons were by far the best skaters in the movie but that didn't stop that guy from yelling "you can't skate!")