St. Albert, AB - Exhibition or not, the Edmonton Oil Kings needed a better effort than the one they got 24 hours earlier. It was an 8-2 loss, but it was put in the rearview when the puck dropped in Sunday's matchup vs. Red Deer. Edmonton rebounded in the best way possible, dropping their bitter provincial rival by a 5-3 score at Servus Place in St. Albert.
Michael St. Croix and TJ Foster each tallied a goal and an assist, while goaltender Tristan Jarry stopped 18 shots in the victory.
"It started off a little rusty," said a smiling St. Croix post-game. "This early in the season, it seems like the puck is bouncing all over the place. But it wasn't, really, and the game got a lot better as it went on, once we got going."
"We had a lot of veterans in the lineup tonight to show the younger guys the ropes," added Keegan Lowe, who cashed an assist and a team-high +3 rating while sporting the 'C' on his sweater. "I liked what I saw tonight, everyone was working hard. Sometimes guys are like, 'Well, it's only pre-season' and they don't give it 100 percent, but there wasn't anything like that tonight. I loved it. Everyone was treating it like a regular game and it's a good thing for the younger guys to learn from."
Just 42 seconds in on the Oil Kings' second shot, rookie Brett Pollock picked up a rebound in the slot and made no mistake in converting the opportunity by snapping a bullet past Rebels goalie Bolton Pouliot.
Pollock, 16 and a Sherwood Park native, netted a natural hat trick in Wednesday's Red-White intrasquad game in Fort Saskatchewan. With a quick release and the accuracy to back it up, Pollock is having a camp to remember.
The home side soon made it 2-0 on a similar play when a pair of 17-year-olds -- Luke Bertolucci and Brandon Baddock -- put the Oil Kings ahead at 4:41; on the team's sixth attempt, Baddock's smooth release stealthily slid between Pouliot's pads.
While the Oil Kings had established a clear advantage on the scoreboard, three minor penalties helped bring the Rebels back into it. Moments after Red Deer's Connor Bleakley sailed a long-range backhander past Jarry to make it a 2-1 game, an undisciplined cross-checking minor to veteran Klarc Wilson proved costly.
On the ensuing power-play, Trace Elson collected a goal-line dish, walked into the slot and pinpointed a shot past Jarry's outstretched glove hand to tie the game.
"We have a pretty good rivalry," St. Croix said, noting the seesaw battle witnessed in the opening 20. "It all started with (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins and them beating us in four straight (games) in the playoffs a couple years ago. We still think about that and every game we play against them is pretty crazy. Tonight was the same, so I wasn't overly surprised they worked hard to get back into the game like that, so quickly."
St. Croix, 19, had a record-breaking 2011-12 season. In all 72 regular-season games, he scored 45 goals and 105 points. Still, he struggled to produce late in the post-season and in the Memorial Cup, but is determined to make good in what will be his last kick at the WHL can this year.
"Every hockey player would tell you that they want a short summer," he said. "We won a championship, but didn't really succeed in what we really wanted at the end. We had a couple months to recuperate and that's all we needed. We're ready to get back into it and we all want to do even better. That's the goal."
5:46 into the second, the home side's veteran snipers stepped up to restore their team's one-goal advantage. In a quick one-touch sequence, St. Croix spotted Foster streaking in the slot. On one knee in Brett Hull-like fashion, Foster connected and whistled a shot into the closely guarded cage.
Red Deer pressed moments later, but Edmonton's D stepped up to prevent the equalizer. First, Jarry put the brakes on a dangerous-looking 3-on-1 try, and then captain Keegan Lowe made a circus-like, around-the-world snatch to clear the puck on what appeared to be a sure-goal as his netminder was desperately swimming in his crease.
"It all happened so quickly," Lowe laughed. "I didn't want to close my hand on it because it would have been a penalty shot.
"But it was pretty awesome."
Lowe, a third-round pick (73rd overall) by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2011, will have much more on his plate this year. With Mark Pysyk turning pro and others stepping in to help repeat as WHL Champions and make a greater impact at the Memorial Cup, he's taking on a much larger role than he ever has in his career.
"It's all about expectations. Expectations from management, our coaches and my teammates are the highest they've ever been," he said. "I'm going to try and live up to them as best I can. We're going to miss Marky and his leadership on the backend, but he's taught me and everyone else as much as he could with our three years playing together."
The Oil Kings salted the outcome with another goal at 13:38. Returning the favour, Foster walked in off the line and put a low shot on Pouliot. With a wide-open net to shoot for, St. Croix pounced on the rebound and hammered it into the yawning six-by-four.
Red Deer got one goal closer late in the third when Jarry mishandled a centre-ice dump-in, allowing Marc McCoy to score, but Brandon Ralph added an empty-netter at 19:20 to make it 5-3.
Next up, the Oil Kings will have two straight pre-season contests against the Prince George Cougars before concluding the exhibition schedule on Friday, Sept. 14 against the very same Rebels.
Then it's opening night, Sept. 20 vs. Kootenay at Rexall Place when it all gets going for real.
"I can't wait for opening night -- to see the banner go up will be so special," St. Croix said. "Being here at 16 (years-old) and not having the greatest year, to last year and winning it all with the WHL title, it's pretty special to have come this far. It will be a great night."