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Mark Letestu has moment at Heritage Classic

Oilers forward scores shorthanded goal on outdoor stage

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

WINNIPEG -- Mark Letestu grew up in Elk Point, Alberta, a town about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Edmonton. He learned to play hockey in a frozen, flooded garden in his backyard, shooting at a piece of plywood, imagining himself as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, and played shinny under the lights late into the night at an outdoor rink by a Windsor Salt plant in nearby Lindbergh, Alberta, a place so small if you blink, you miss it.

"Outdoor hockey," Letestu said, "seems to be a part of every young Canadian kid's learning of the game."

Now here he was Sunday in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic, an outdoor game designed to celebrate and romanticize those roots, sparking a 3-0 win for the Edmonton Oilers against the Winnipeg Jets before 33,240 at Investors Group Field. These events take regular-season NHL games and turn them into spectacles, creating moments to remember for fans and players alike, moments like this.

Letestu was killing a penalty when Jets captain Blake Wheeler tried to pass from the left-wing corner to the point. Letestu got his stick on the puck, and the puck slowed as it approached Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, like a changeup approaching a home-run hitter. Byfuglien swung and missed. He tried to kick the puck. Missed. The puck kept sliding, and with Byfuglien reeling, Letestu slipped past Byfuglien, grabbed the puck and took off.

It was a breakaway from the Winnipeg blue line, so clean it was like a penalty shot. Letestu was so focused in the moment, he didn't consider "The Moment," that this was the second period of a scoreless tie in a football stadium on national television in Canada, that his mom, dad, family and friends were watching back home in Elk Point. He said he was thinking only, "Please score." But he was able to slow down and think of what to do.

"When you get a breakaway from the far blue in," Letestu said, "you've got a lot of time to kind of make up your mind to put the shot on that you want."

Letestu went to his favorite shootout move. He skated to the left, approached on his forehand, stickhandled head up and beat Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck's glove. Even then, he didn't consider "The Moment." He tried to avoid running over referee Gord Dwyer. He heard a muted road cheer, not a home roar. When he got back to the bench and his teammates congratulated him, he was happy he had broken the scoreless tie more than anything.

Video: EDM@WPG: Letestu beats Hellebuyck shorthanded

He has scored bigger goals, overtime goals down the stretch in the regular season, a goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He scored a shorthanded goal on Hellebuyck in the preseason -- using the same move, shooting to the same spot -- and a shorthanded goal Oct. 14 against the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome.

This goal counted the same as his other 69 regular-season goals. It didn't feel the same, though.

"It's different," Letestu said. "I mean …"

He laughed.

"We're under the sky," he continued. "The jets are flying overhead [at the end of the Canadian national anthem]. There's a lot of people here."

Darnell Nurse had a moment soon afterward. He came out of the penalty box, joined the rush and smacked in a feed from Connor McDavid for his fourth NHL goal, giving the Oilers a 2-0 lead. The nephew of former National Football League quarterback Donovan McNabb and son of former Canadian Football League wide receiver Richard Nurse scored in the home of the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

"I know what it felt like for my uncle and my dad when they were scoring touchdowns," Nurse said with a laugh. "It was a lot of fun."

Video: EDM@WPG: Nurse finishes a two-on-one rush to pad lead

Zack Kassian had a moment later in the second, taking a behind-the-back feed from Benoit Pouliot and giving the Oilers a 3-0 lead. Goaltender Cam Talbot had a moment when the final horn sounded and his 31-save shutout was secure. Letestu scooped up the puck and popped it into Talbot's glove.

"That's just something I figured maybe Cam would want," Letestu said.

This was something for everyone to cherish, even the Jets, once the disappointment of losing fades.

"Tonight is a night full of memories for both teams," Oilers coach Todd McLellan said. "Win or lose, you have something you're going to talk to your kids about, your family. You're going to tell stories, success or failure. You'll remember good and bad things about it. These games are important for the fans, for the League, for hockey in general, but they're important for the players too. It's a different night."

As he stood in the dressing room after the game, remnants of eye black on his face, an Oilers Heritage Classic toque on his head, Letestu expected his phone to be full of text messages from people back home in Elk Point. It had sunk in that his mom and dad, who flooded that garden in the backyard, and his buddies, perhaps some of whom had played at that outdoor rink by that salt plant, had been watching, had seen that goal, had seen his TV interview between periods.

"This one's pretty cool," Letestu said. "It's just a kind of a memorable thing I'll be able to tell my kids."

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