EDMONTON — Matt Berlin was studying psychology. Then his phone beeped, and he wished he had chosen pre-Med.
“Change of plans,” the text read. “You are actually backing up tonight.”
“So … my heart rate spikes. ‘Oh my God! What’s going on?!?” said the University of Alberta Golden Bears third-string goalie.
An Emergency Backup last season, Berlin has served as a practice goalie for the Edmonton Oilers in the past. But when Stuart Skinner called in sick Saturday night, Berlin signed an Amateur Try Out contract and was dressed as Jack Campbell’s backup against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Okay. Sitting on the bench, watching Connor McDavid whiz by… Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night, even though Berlin earned exactly $0.00 on his ATO.
But then, with about seven minutes left in a game that Edmonton led 7-2, Oilers captain Connor McDavid turned to head coach Jay Woodcroft. “Hey, why don’t we put him in?”
“It came from the players,” said Woodcroft. “I was proud of our team, that they came to that decision. Jack Campbell came to the bench at the TV timeout, we told him what we were thinking, and he was all on board. And … good on (Berlin) for going out there and making a save.
“He will carry that memory with him the rest of his life. He’ll be in the record books is having played in the National Hockey League.”
It was a blocker save for the ages, off of Caleb Jones. One we’ll all promptly forget, but one that will run on a loop in Berlin’s mind.
We see lots of Emergency Back Ups — or EBUGs, as they’re called — pull on a jersey, but so seldom do they play. That the Oilers, as a group, came to this conclusion speaks well for them.
What did Berlin think when Woodcroft told him to go get stretched out?
“I thought he was kidding,” said the 25-year-old Edmonton native, bedecked in the green and gold gear of the Golden Bears, with that confident, snarly Bear face painted on his mask. “I thought they were joking but no. (Woodcroft) said ‘At about the three-minute mark you’re going in.’ So I went back and did a couple of stretches. Took a couple of breaths.
“(His heart) was pounding for the four minutes after he told me. Then once I got in there, I got a drink of water and it was all right.”
Berlin played 2:26 and recorded the final save in a 7-3 win, taking Edmonton into the All-Star break on a 7-0-1 tear. As the Oilers players and coaches now scatter for all points warm, Edmonton can dare to dream about a Pacific Division title that this franchise has not won since 1987.
They’ve cozied up within three points of first place Seattle with 32 games to play, and sport a .750 winning percentage since Jan. 1 that is third best in the entire NHL. The Oilers are 10-3-2 since the Christmas break — a .733 clip that trails only Boston and Tampa in the entire NHL.
“I think we feel pretty good about our game since Christmas,” said McDavid. “We went on a little bit of a run to get ourselves back in the thick of things. Now, a little rest and recovery to gear up for a big homestretch here and get ourselves back into the (fight).”
Zach Hyman has scored in five straight games and has a seven-game points streak in which he’s piled up six goals and 10 points. He had another 1-2-3 on a plus-3 night against Chicago, while Darnell Nurse added three assists and pushed his plus-minus up to a team-high plus-16.
That’s not bad for a defenceman who also leads the team in minutes played, and plays more minutes against top opponents than anyone in blue and orange.
Meanwhile, Edmonton has four guys at 60 points at the All-Star break: McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. All four are in the Top 13 in NHL scoring.
“We’re getting contributions up and down the lineup,” said McDavid. “And it’s not even goals. (Brett Kulak) with a huge fight tonight. Jesse (Puljujarvi) playing physical. (Klim Kostin) playing physical… Up and down the lineup, we’re getting contribution. When everybody’s bought in and going, it’s a treat.”
The trick here is keeping the goals against down, and with both Campbell and Skinner giving Edmonton excellent starts, that seems doable. Offensively, this is the most potent team through the first 50 games of an NHL season since Mario Lemieux’s 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins.
McDavid is the first player since ’95-96 to have 90 points at the All-Star break, while the Oilers are the first team to have three 25-goal scorers since that Penguins club. To have four players with 60 points after 50 games is almost unheard of numbers in the modern game.
Now, a week’s rest, and then the meat of the season begins.