EDMONTON — It was as much about what we heard as what we saw Tuesday night at Rogers Place, as the shortest exhibition season in Battle of Alberta history played out in an empty arena that echoed with warnings and threats.
“I liked our first period, didn’t like our second and I thought we responded well in the third,” McDavid said after the game. “So we kind of had all the highs and lows of one game and those are the types of swings you’re going to see in the playoffs. We’ve done our best to prepare ourselves and we have a couple more days to do that and we’re ready to go Saturday.”
There were the usual hacks and whacks we’ve come to expect, though no renewal of the Matthew Tkachuk-Zack Kassian feud. In a building devoid of fans, however, we did hear Zac Rinaldo threaten Josh Archibald — “I’ll (bleepin’) hurt you. I will!” — from the penalty box, while the referees’ voices were as interesting as much of the hockey.
Who knew how instructive the refs are, barking at potential holders to “Watch the free hand,” telling players that a hit was clean, or “puck’s gone.” It was all quite interesting, really, a byproduct of something none of us have ever borne witness to before — a genuine National Hockey League game played in front of exactly zero fans.
“To be honest,” said Oilers goalie Mike Smith, “it felt like the ‘Twilight Zone’ there for a bit. Everyone was kind of skating around, feeling out what it was going to be like with no one in the arena. Definitely one of the oddest games that I’ve ever played in the NHL. That’s what going to make this little tournament so unique, and so difficult to win.”
From an Oilers standpoint, two things stood out: 19-year-old Philip Broberg dressed as the seventh defenceman, and both goalies looked game ready, one of the last questions as Edmonton turns its sights to Qualifying Round opponents the Chicago Blackhawks.
Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said afterwards that Broberg played for two reasons: Caleb Jones is “nicked up and was unavailable,” and of all the players at the coach’s disposal this summer, Broberg was the only one who had never played an NHL game. He decided to make this meaningless game that debut, instead of having that occur late in the rounds, should injuries occur.
As for the goaltending, Koskinen got the start, no doubt on the recommendation of goaltending coach Dustin Schwartz, who would have assessed that he had a stingier camp than did Smith. Koskinen stopped all 17 shots he faced in the opening 30 minutes, while Smith — who had been somewhat shelled in two intrasquad scrimmages — gave up his only goal on a power-play rebound situation that left him chanceless.
Smith faced 20 shots, and now the Oilers appear to have what they had all season long — a tandem that can win enough games between them to take this team somewhere.
Smith was just happy to see “some more realistic shots from what a scrimmage with your team is. Nice to get the juices flowing again,” he said.
As for who will be the Game 1 starter Saturday versus Chicago, our guess would be Koskinen. But Smith’s strong game Tuesday night could alter that assumption.
“I really believe I play my best hockey in the playoffs, and obviously Mikko has played well and wants to play also,” he said. “It will be a healthy competition, like it has been all season long.”
Tippett got a goal from his power play and his club only gave up one goal. All in all, not bad after four months off.
“Some good, some bad,” he said. “I like both of our goaltenders, a couple of power plays were all right… But, we have some work to do.”
Tippett has good depth at both forward and defence, with four lines and three pairings that he is relatively happy with. It’s the two-headed goalie that will be his biggest call, and one he’ll likely announce to his netminders on Friday.
“I think both guys will play,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard decision, but it’s a decision you’ll feel comfortable with either way because both guys have played very well. I like the position we’re in.
“They make the decision hard on me. But in actual fact, you feel comfortable whichever way you go.”