EDMONTON - If the Edmonton Oilers hope to establish themselves as a playoff team this season, a lot will be riding on the shoulder of Sheldon Souray.
Souray had a strong start in his first game since last January, scoring a goal and adding an assist in a losing effort as the Oilers fell 4-3 in a shootout to the visiting Vancouver Canucks on Monday night. Jason Krog's shootout goal proved to be the winner for the Canucks.
Souray was Edmonton's biggest free agent signing of the 2007 off-season when he left the Montreal Canadiens for a US$27-million, five year contract with the Oilers. But injuries, including season-ending surgery on his left shoulder, kept him out of the lineup for the majority of the campaign as he suited up in just 26 games and had a meagre 10 points.
This season the Oilers are optimistic he will be around for much more and will be a big part of a rebuilt power play unit.
For his part, the Elk Point, Alta., native was just thrilled to be in a real game situation again.
"I was glad they put some of the guys who hadn't played in a while in," said Souray, who also clanged a shot off the post and added a thunderous hit on Canuck Jason Jaffray in the game. "Even watching one more game before getting in would have been painful. I'm feeling good."
Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish said the 32-year old defenceman turned some heads in his return.
"He played unreal," MacTavish said. "I think he is really ready to go. You could see that really early, the focus that he had coming into camp. He played outstanding tonight."
Edmonton got a chance to display its potentially lethal new power play combination in the opening minute of Monday's game, and it lived up to the billing early as Souray unleashed a bullet past rookie netminder Cory Schneider.
Souray says that the power play unit, which also features Erik Cole, Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky, Lumbomir Visnovsky, will likely be a big factor in the team's fate this season.
"We have a lot of expectations on us and it's more important that we worry about what we are doing out there rather than letting the expectations of the fans and media get to us," he said. "We have guys that compliment each other well out there and it looks on paper like it could be good but we are going to have to work at it."
Just over a minute after the opening goal the Canucks had tied it up as Pierre-Cedric Labrie chipped a puck over a sprawling Mathieu Garon in the Edmonton net to the stick of Jeff Cowan for an easy tap-in and a 1-1 tie.
The Oilers regained the lead just before the five-minute mark as Cole, acquired in an off-season trade with Carolina, swatted in a rebound following a Horcoff tip of another Souray blast from the point.
The Canucks pulled even six minutes later as Daniel Sedin dished a pass in front of the net to a pinching Mattias Ohlund to tie the game 2-2 after the first.
Edmonton scored the lone goal in the second as Steve Staios sent sophomore centre Sam Gagner in on a short-handed breakaway, and he undressed Schneider with a backhand goal to give the Oilers the 3-2 edge after two.
Vancouver had a brilliant opportunity to get back into the game when they were awarded a five minute major following a dustup between Edmonton's Hans Benson and Canucks defenceman Rob Davison five minutes into the third, but the Oilers came up with a huge penalty kill to stay in front.
Vancouver finally drew even with five minutes to go in the final frame as Dan Gendur was able to find a loose puck off the face-off and bounce it past Garon to send the game to overtime and the eventual shootout.
The two teams have a rematch in Vancouver on Tuesday night.
Notes: In a bit of a scheduling quirk, Edmonton has more home games in September than in October. The Oilers play four pre-season tilts at Rexall Place in Edmonton this month but only have three next month. Edmonton has 18 of its first 25 regular season games on the road this season. ... Edmonton went into the game with an all-time record of 18-10-3 in the pre-season against Vancouver, outscoring the Canucks 130-102. ... Vancouver dressed the more experienced of their two teams from training camp, with just one player on this roster without any pro hockey experience in RW Dan Gendur, who was a standout at rookie camp.