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Oilers shine in Heritage Classic

Edmonton takes full advantage of sun delay to prepare for outdoor win against Jets

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

WINNIPEG -- It's not uncommon for Canadians on the prairies to shovel snow off their Jack O'Lanterns in late October. So it was a little out of the ordinary Sunday that the start of the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic was delayed by … good weather.

Just short of two hours after the 3 p.m. ET scheduled puck drop, a radiant sun had finally cooperated by moving far enough around the west side of Investors Group Field to throw almost complete shade across the rink.

And then the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers got down to business, with the visitors skating into the sunset with a 3-0 win before 33,240 fans.

There were no nerves jangling in the Oilers dressing room during the delay. In fact, forward Milan Lucic said it was quite the opposite.

"We were pretty loose in the room," Lucic said with a grin. "We just kind of hung out, had some laughs, we watched a little football. As serious as this was for the two points, we definitely kept the room light before the game and it seems to have paid off for us."

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What Lucic didn't say was that with the win, the Oilers ended a 13-year outdoor drought; granted, they had only played in fresh air once previously, a 4-3 loss to the Montreal Canadiens at the inaugural 2003 Heritage Classic game at tundra-like Commonwealth Stadium.

The delay Sunday wasn't unprecedented, bright sun having pushed back outdoor NHL games in Philadelphia in 2012 and New York in 2014.

Had this Heritage Classic game been played in Winnipeg a month or two from now, the blinding sun would have crossed behind the stadium by 2 p.m. and left the rink in the shade. Of course, the thermometer might also have read absolute zero, at which point molecules freeze, so the tradeoff wasn't bad.

For Lucic, this wasn't merely his first outdoor NHL game. It was the first game outdoors, at any level, for the native of balmy, outdoor-ice-free Vancouver. As a member of the Boston Bruins in 2010-11, an injury deprived him of the opportunity to play in the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Fenway Park, practicing the day before would be as close as he'd come.

"When I signed [with Edmonton as a free agent this July], this was one of the dates I circled early on the calendar, just because I'd never been a part of an outdoor game before," Lucic said. "Luckily for all of us, the weather held up, and for the players it wasn't too cold. The two-hour delay was definitely necessary for us to make us feel more comfortable out there. It becomes that much more of an experience when you come out with a big win."

The weather gods had smiled on the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game on Saturday, perfect conditions greeting legends of the Jets and Oilers for the home team's 6-5 win before a crowd of 31,317.

Overnight rain Saturday yielded to cloudy skies, which in turn surrendered to a brilliant early afternoon sun that would have made it dangerous to play.

So everyone waited for a couple hours until an opening ceremony that included a loud flyover of three CT-114 Tutor jets, members of Canada's legendary Snowbirds acrobatic team and a CF-18 Hornet.

The sun was still painting parts of the rink during the first period, a temperature of 50 degrees at the start made it comfortable for players and fans alike. Once the action began, spectators were instantly delighted by the thunderous checks that echoed like explosions around the stadium thank to microphones placed in the boards.

"Both teams were a little hesitant to get their game going because both weren't really sure how the conditions and the ice were going to be," Lucic said. "The depth perception not having the fans right behind the glass, that really makes a difference. When the puck got up on the glass, you lost it a little bit. But once guys got a few bumps in and were able to make some passes and get a few scoring chances, they were able to get it going more normal.

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"It wasn't too cold, and thankfully there was no rain. After the first period, the sun wasn't a factor at all. Other than the first, the conditions were pretty good.

"When you get into game mode, you forget about [being outdoors] a little bit. We got a fortunate bounce on our first goal, which usually doesn't happen indoors, but just enjoying the experience and keeping it simple got us the win."

Two of three outdoor NHL games in Alberta have been shutouts, the Oilers' Cam Talbot turning aside 31 shots Sunday. At the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary, Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff made 39 saves to shut out the Canadiens, 4-0.

For Lucic, his maiden outdoor game was one for his memory bank, and he took full advantage especially of the waning moments to enjoy the sights and sounds.

"It was great, that long walk from the tunnel out to the crowd to the rink," he recalled of the start. "It was pretty cool seeing all those fans for the first time. And at the end there, I kind of looked up and took it all in, knowing this might be only chance to play outside like this. It becomes that much more of a better experience when you win."

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