Hundreds of Edmonton Oilers fans from across Western Canada converged on the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Centre on Friday evening, to catch a glimpse of a promising young core they hope will rekindle the glory days of Gretzky, Messier and Kurri.
Instead, all they got was a Steve Smith flashback.
Late in the second period of an AHL “Battle of Alberta” between the Abbotsford Heat (Calgary Flames affiliate) and the Oklahoma City Barons (Oilers), OKC defenceman Martin Marincin fired a clearing attempt from behind his own net that went off a teammate’s skate and bounced past goalie Yann Danis for a Heat goal.
Ben Walter, the last Abbotsford player to touch the puck, got credit for the easiest goal he’ll ever score. It gave the Heat a 3-0 lead, and they would cruise to a dominant 4-0 victory.
Smith, of course, infamously banked in an own-goal off Oilers netminder Grant Fuhr’s skate in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series in 1986, boosting the Flames to victory and an eventual berth in the Stanley Cup final. It’s one of many enduring moments in a fabled rivalry.
Marincin’s blunder, thankfully for him, was on a smaller stage than Smith’s, but the Heat were happy to be on the receiving end of a weird bounce.
“I’ve been on the other side of that, and it deflates you a little bit,” Heat centre Ben Street said afterward. “For us, we didn’t want to take our foot off the gas at all, but that was certainly a huge help.”
Immaculate special-teams play and stellar goaltending have defined the Heat’s hot start to the season, and those twin trends carried them once again on Friday as they improved to 7-1-2.
Dustin Sylvester, Street and Krys Kolanos scored power-play goals and Danny Taylor stopped all 23 shots the Barons directed his way, as the Heat prevailed before a capacity crowd of 7,046.
Just as pivotal as the power-play production, the Heat’s top-ranked penalty kill stymied a Barons man-advantage unit which features NHL-proven young guns Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins along with sensational rookie defenceman Justin Schultz, the AHL’s points leader.
The Heat are 44-for-45 on the PK this season (97.8 per cent efficiency).
“It was mostly just keep doing what we have been doing – try to keep guys like that to the outside and not let them through seams,” Street said, breaking down how his team contained the Barons.
“We know they have a lot of one-on-one skill, and we wanted to make sure we weren’t caught watching the puck and let those guys make passes through us. If they went around us, we were OK with that. We got some good blocks as well, and the goaltender was great again.”
Indeed, while Taylor wasn’t tested often, he made timely stops, including a glove save on OKC blueliner Colten Teubert in the first period.
“For me, I haven’t started an NHL game,” Taylor said. “I tried to imagine this was the NHL, because obviously their first-line power play, almost all of them should be up in Edmonton this year.
“So I really enjoyed it, and was really excited for tonight’s game, to get out there and play against guys like that. I had a lot of fun.”
Considering all the high-end NHL talent on the Barons’ roster, it’s something of a head-scratcher that they’ve been shut out two straight games now. They were also blanked 2-0 by the San Antonio Rampage last Sunday.
“I just feel we’re not shooting the puck enough,” OKC coach Todd Nelson analyzed. “We’ve got to get pucks going to the net. We’ve got to get greasy. When you go through times like this you can’t rely on the pretty plays. You have to get those greasy goals and a lucky bounce here and there, who knows what happens.”
Any chance of a Barons’ rally was derailed in the third period, as they handed the Heat five power plays in the frame.
“It’s a sign of a team that’s young and you have to mature together,” said Nelson. “It’s a learning experience for everybody. As a team we need to channel that aggression the right way.”
• The two teams renew hostilities on Saturday evening (7 p.m., AESC). While the game is already sold out, it is being broadcast live on Sportsnet.
• The Heat were 3-for-9 on the power play on Friday, and killed all five of the Barons’ man-advantage chances.
• Friday’s game drew Oilers fans from far and wide, including an entire busload from Edmonton.
“You’re going through withdrawal, right?” explained Earl Petkau, who flew in from the Alberta capital. “There’s a guy I work with who has (Oilers) season tickets, so I go to about 10 games a year. I see these kids play all the time.
“All the young guns are here (in Abbotsford), so it was a perfect opportunity.”
• Paul Byron, who had missed training camp and the first nine games of the campaign with an upper-body injury, made his season debut for the Heat, reprising his role as centre on a line with Sylvester and Kolanos. The trio had a great deal of success together late last season.
“I thought Paul gave us good energy,” Heat head coach Troy Ward said. “He competes real hard, he sticks his nose in pretty hard, and then he gets off (the ice). I like his game. He doesn’t long-shift you, he doesn’t play winded.”
• Schultz, a Kelowna product who chose to sign with the Oilers over the Vancouver Canucks last spring as a free agent out of the University of Wisconsin, was booed every time he touched the puck by a cluster of fans at the north end of the rink.
Heat forward Krys Kolanos looks for a loose puck in front of Barons goalie Yann Danis. (John Morrow photo)