Dylan Strome of the Chicago Blackhawks stretches on Saturday before his squad defeated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the their qualification round series at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
The Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks circle for the national anthem before an NHL post-season game in Edmonton on Saturday.
Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers takes the puck past the Chicago Blackhawks’ bench as David Kampf of the Blackhawks gives chase during Saturday’s post-season action at Rogers Place.
Players from other Western Conference teams watch Saturday’s game at Rogers Place between the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks.
EDMONTON — It’s an hour before puck drop here and, under different circumstances, the area around Rogers Place would be crackling with the intense energy created by the NHL playoffs.
Fans would be spilling into the streets. The bars and restaurants would be full. There would be anticipation in the air.
Edmonton versus Chicago. McDavid and Draisaitl versus Kane and Toews. It’s a dream matchup as the league presents its first official games since it paused almost five months ago due to a global health crisis and there is excitement in the fevered imaginations of hockey fans.
As for the city of Edmonton, that excitement is a little harder to find.
“I’m not going to lie,” says the Canucks’ Bo Horvat, via one of the interminable Zoom sessions that passes for media availability these days. “It’s different.”
On this, everyone involved agrees.
Our assignment on Day 1 of the NHL’s restart is to write a colour piece about this strange new world where hockey is played on Aug. 1, where the temperature outside is in the high 20s, where there is a complete absence of human activity unrelated to protecting the bubble. The problem is, general weirdness aside, there is no colour to sustain a colour piece.
Sure, the games have started and, judging by Saturday’s offerings, they make for good TV which is really the end game here. Rogers Place has basically been transformed into a sound stage for hockey. The seats are covered with tarps and giant screens hang from the rafters. As always, noise is pumped into the environment at an unnecessarily loud level which, one supposes, makes up for the lack of crowd noise.
But juxtaposed against those TV images, there is a parallel world occupied by the players and staff where the goal is to keep yourself sane until the next game.
The Canucks’ Tyler Toffolli was asked about this Saturday morning during another gripping Zoom session, asked about the challenges presented by this new routine and before he answered, teammate Tanner Pearson, sitting in the next seat, started to laugh.
It wasn’t because he found the question funny.
“For me personally it feels like a regular road trip,” Toffoli said. “I don’t really do a whole lot when we go on the road. It’s a lot of napping and catching up with friends, going for dinner and going back to sleep. That’s pretty much what my life’s like on the road.”
At least that alleviates the need for a sleep doctor. Still, this has created a new line of questioning for players and coaches. Normally, a contentious issue will be presented as a potential distraction — as in those trade rumours, are they a distraction? — in the hopes the subject will address the issue head on. But in this case, it can fairly be asked if the lack of distractions in the bubble are, in fact, a distraction.
“It is what it is,” said Pearson. “It’s different for me having the little guy (son Tucker, just over a year old) at home. It’s a lot of FaceTime with my wife and him. We try to fill the day that way.”
The Canucks’ off-ice existence, in fact, is a casebook study in banality. They’re located at the Sutton Place Hotel a couple of blocks from the arena. They walk along a prescribed route from the hotel to the rink. They have a players’ lounge and an outdoor area where a basketball hoop has been set up.
This was the setting for a minute-long video of Elias Pettersson shooting baskets which is currently up on the Canucks’ website. Pettersson actually has a nice left-handed stroke but, come on, the video doesn’t show him missing once.
There’s also an ongoing Ping-Pong match that has provided content for the website but the larger effect of the Canucks’ life in the bubble is like those photos that emerged from China during the cultural revolution, showing the proletariat slaving away at a mundane task with an artificial smile plastered on their face under the caption: A happy worker is a productive worker.
“ It’s been fine,” said Canucks head coach Travis Green. “It doesn’t feel any different than being on the road, other than we’re not walking around the city. That’s what you do on the road. You walk from the hotel to the rink. You go to a restaurant.”
Fine. But the Canucks are just starting their second week in the bubble and if this goes according to plan, they’ll be here another month, maybe longer. Pettersson might be dunking by then.
As for the media, their existence isn’t any more eventful. Like the players it’s hotel, rink, work, hotel, Netflix, rinse, repeat.
There is, however, some drama. Given the temperature they keep the arena, there is a real danger we might lose a scribe to hypothermia. This raises the question will anyone notice or will he/she sit lifelessly over their keyboard, the eternal reporter, literally frozen in time?
Old pal Adrian Dater from Denver also showed up wearing shorts on Saturday. His choice of garb was second-guessed by many of his colleagues in attendance.
Buble tries to make it a beautiful day
Before the start of the Edmonton-Chicago game, a video was played of Michael Buble singing O Canada . The national anthem usually elicits a fevered response from the home crowd that sets the tone for the game’s first five minutes.
On Saturday there was just the sound of sticks tapping on the ice and the game began.
After the Blackhawks forced Oilers starter Mike Smith into a couple of early saves the Hawks took a too-many-men penalty and McDavid converted on the ensuing power play. Again this is the post-season, this is Edmonton and it’s McDavid and that combination should have produced a more significant response than random high fives on the Oilers’ bench.
As it happened, the Oilers’ momentum lasted all of three minutes before Dylan Strome tied it up. That was also the first of three straight goals for the Blackhawks in the span of just over three minutes prompting this line from Postmedia’s Rob Tychkowski: “That takes the crowd out of the game.”
Jonathan Toews scored his second goal at the end of the first making it 4-1 before Chicago stretched the lead to 6-2 after two periods with underrated rookie Dominik Kubalik picking up five points.
After each Blackhawks’ goal, the infamous Chelsea Dagger theme song played. Either that or I was having a flashback to the 2010 playoff series between the Hawks and Canucks. Whatever. The Oilers scored two late goals to make the final count marginally more respectable, but they were outshot 42-29, surrendered three power-play goals and Smith was yanked after allowing five goals on 23 shots.
This didn’t make Oilers head coach Dave Tippett happy. Neither did this: in the history of best-of-five, the team that wins the first game has won 68 of the 83 series.
“We made far too many mistakes and lost too many individual battles,” said Tippett. “It’s as simple as that. If you don’t elevate your game going into the playoffs you’re going to be behind and that’s where we were tonight.”
The Hawks’ Brandon Saad was asked about the pivotal sequence early in the game when the Oilers failed to generate any momentum after McDavid’s power-play goal. The crowd would have normally given the home team a lift at that moment. On this day, there was no crowd and no lift for the home team.
“It’s different for sure,” said Saad. “They score a big power-play goal and it’s dead in the arena. You have to focus more on creating your own energy because you’re not going to get that extra push from being at home or having the crowd on your side.”
Bettman not included in bubble
It’s generally conceded the NHL has put together the soundest restart plan of all the professional leagues in North America. As of Friday the league conducted some 1,500 tests for the novel coronavirus without a positive result.
But that isn’t the only bit of good news to emerge from Phase 4. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Bill Daly, his No. 2, were denied exemption to the 14-day quarantine rule which means neither are in Edmonton or Toronto, the other hub city.
There’s no such thing as a small win.
Still, whatever has transpired, hockey is back, the bubble has held and, after wondering if this day would ever arrive, the fans have the game.
Still not sure exactly what this means but after five month of nothing, it’s something.
“The whole league’s been on pause and the whole world’s been on pause,” said Green. “It’s a big step for our team and the league. For the fans of the NHL it’s an exciting day.”
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