These are not your father’s Edmonton Oilers, this swashbuckling young team, and for proof, consider the father of Thursday night’s scoring hero, Sam Gagner. Gagner was 7 the year his dad, Dave, played for the Flames. Dave Gagner was Jarome Iginla’s first centre in Iginla’s rookie season and helped him find his way in the NHL.
The younger Gagner has a picture of himself, as a boy, posing with Iginla at the Saddledome – and went on the ice there, the way children of NHL players do, after practice at Christmas, during school breaks.
The Oilers of 2012-13 are steeped in the tradition of the Battle of Alberta, which, after a few less than enthralling years, resumes Saturday in Calgary with a new, clearer focus. It is Edmonton’s youth and promise against Calgary’s veteran uncertainty. The Oilers feature Taylor Hall, who lived in Calgary until the age of 12 before the family moved to Kingston. There is Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who played his junior hockey in Red Deer, the city perched right in the middle of the two cities, where some fans look north for their NHL fix and some glance south.
The Battle of Alberta has been like that for years, curious threads to tug on for both sides.
The Oilers haven’t had a lot of homegrown talent of late, but that changed in the first week when the Oilers acquired Mark Fistric, a hard-hitting defenceman, from the Dallas Stars. Fistric demonstrated what he will add to the mix with a crushing, old-fashioned, open-ice bodycheck against the Los Angeles Kings’ Jordan Nolan in Thursday night’s controversial and entertaining 2-1 overtime win over the defending Stanley Cup champions. He should be right at home when hostilities resume Saturday night in Calgary, on a game that will be featured on Hockey Night in Canada.
Two of the newest Oilers, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, will be making their Battle of Alberta debuts, and Gagner knows there’ll be a conversation before puck drop about what it all means.
“I think that’s something you try to prepare for, but it’s hard to,” Gagner said. “Once the game starts, you realize the intensity of it and everything that comes from playing in the Battle of Alberta. It’s a tough test.”
The Oilers had an interesting first week, starting with last Sunday night’s road win over the Vancouver Canucks. They came home for the season opener against the San Jose Sharks and laid an egg in the first 20 minutes – down 6-1 in a game they lost 6-3. Forty-eight hours later, the Kings came to town and it is hard to imagine any game this season being any stranger than that. Virtually every obscure penalty in the rulebook was called. The power plays were abysmal. L.A. nursed a 1-0 lead into the 58th minute when Nugent-Hopkins appeared to tie the game, only to have the goal waved off because Gagner was allegedly in the crease.
Oilers fans pelted the ice with debris in disgust. But with 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Yakupov tied the game, and celebrated in Theo Fleury style, a knees-first slide down the ice, with the fans on their feet, cheering loudly. In overtime, the Kings took another penalty – for too many men on the ice – and Gagner made them pay, sneaking in from the right point to the left post to score the winner against goalie Jonathan Quick. It was an extraordinary finish to a quirky game, but in a lot of ways, the method – as much as the result – could be just what the Oilers need to coalesce as a team.
Yakupov has a pleasing cockiness to him and his celebration earned mixed reviews on social media. Some loved it. Others thought it was presumptuous for someone playing in just his third NHL game. But enthusiasm is something in short supply in today’s buttoned-down NHL, and for better or worse, Yakupov’s giddiness made it on all the highlight shows.
Gagner suggested he might have done the same when he scored, except that he’d been tackled by Justin Schultz. At this stage in their development, the Oilers are a team “continually learning more and more about ourselves,” Gagner said.
“It was a short training camp, but that’s all we talked about – having that winner’s mentality. There’s going to be adversity, it’s just how you handle it.”
Could a come-from-behind victory over the defending champions be a turning point for the young Oilers?
“There are defining moments in every season,” Gagner said, “defining who you are as a team, and we’re hoping this is one of those moments. The biggest thing for us is, we have so many games here, that it’s a matter of bottling that feeling and moving on. It’s so important just to focus on your next task and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The next task: Calgary on a Saturday night. Let the hostilities resume.