EDMONTON, AB - Wrapping up a three-game win in Penticton, the Oilers Rookies prepare to continue their streak in the annual match-up against the University of Alberta Golden Bears tonight.
Last year, the rookies - who featured the Oilers 2015 number-one draft pick Connor McDavid, as well as Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse - beat the Golden bears 6-3 in a highly contested match.
"Last year, when we played these guys we had a pretty full team," said Oilers forward Braden Christoffer. "Three of [our] guys ended up playing the NHL, so maybe it was a little mismatched there, but [the Golden Bears], they're a good squad… they're no slumps over there. They're going to be coming hard at us and it's going to be a tough game."
The Golden Bears, who lead the series 13-12, will be looking for their first win against the rookies since 2013 .
The Oilers, who hosted the Golden Bears for the first time in the game's 25-year history, will play visitors once again as the venue switches back to the historic Clare Drake Arena.
When a venue changes, a player has to be able to adapt.
"The boards don't move so when you get hit it hurts a little bit more," said Oilers defenceman Ben Betker. "The puck comes off fast and it's their rink, they know the bounds of this, they know how to work it. It'll be a good one and I'm excited for it."
While the history of the game dates back to 1988, a win for the Golden Bears against the Oilers rookies has proven to be good luck, as the Bears have won a national championship title and a game against the Oilers rookies in the same season six times.
The rookies will be looking to make this year another third straight win, topping off their third annual Young Stars Classic championship
"This is the biggest one," said Betker. "I think we stressed it on the ice a bit this morning. It was great what we went through in Penticton but this is the one that everyone seems to remember, this is the most heated, the most fun and the building will be packed tonight, looking forward to it."
LEVEL OF COMPETE
After an intense weekend of play in Penticton, the match-up between the Oilers rookies and Golden Bears is one of the most anticipated games in Edmonton before main training camp begins.
"It's a history that tells itself," said Christoffer, who played in Clare Drake Arena back in Pee Wee, when his team won the Golden Bear tournament.
"The [Golden Bears] have been national champions multiple times over, Clare Drake [was] one of the best coaches ever, this game is always fun to play, it's definitely difficult but it's a lot of fun."
The level of competition will be high and the intensity, strong. Though there are a few players on the Oilers roster that have experienced the annual game years prior, Oilers Rookie Head Coach Gerry Fleming said he has been advising those who are new to the history of the game what it is they can expect going in.
"The importance, the intensity, it's been over 20 years now that the game has been played," said Fleming. "It's a great game - the building's going to be packed. It's a great experience, you're a part of history and they should go out and relish the moment."
Last year, rookie phenom Connor McDavid headlined the Golden Bears game. This year, it's expected that Oilers 2016 number-four draft pick Jesse Puljujarvi will be the fan favourite to watch.
The skilled Finnish forward, who finished the Young Stars Classic with six points, will be making his Edmonton debut on the ice.
"You want the guy that wants the puck in his hands, wants to make the plays with it," said Fleming. "First of all, he's a great kid, he really has a smile on his face, I don't think he's had a bad day yet. So he's come here with a great attitude, he's that type of player that wants to make a difference in the game, that's why he wants the puck and that's why he was drafted in the first round.
The pojected lineup for tonight is as follows:
-- Meg Tilley, edmontonoilers.com
OILERS vs. GOLDEN BEARS
RADIO: 630 CHED
OILERS TO WATCH:
This will be the 26th meeting in the annual series, with the Oilers Rookies looking to even the series at 13 wins each. Last September in front of over 14,000 fans at Rexall Place; Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Darnell Nurse led the Oilers to a 6-3 win over what was then the two-time reigning CIS Champion Golden Bears.
The Oilers Rookies will head into the game on a roll after an impressive performance in Penticton, which saw all three goaltenders, Nick Ellis, Dylan Wells and Keven Bouchard give the team solid starts.
Based on rotation it is likely we would see Nick Ellis get the start. Ellis, signed to the Oilers to an NHL deal after putting up stellar numbers in Providence last season (25-7-4, 1.80 GAA, .936 SVP) is expected to compete for playing time in Bakersfield this season.
Defensively, the pairing of Caleb Jones and Matt Benning was the best for the Oilers in Penticton. Jones had a strong season last year in Portland (10-35-45/72 GP) and is likely headed back there where he could play 25+ mins per game. Benning, showed maturity and poise on the back end in Penticton and is in the mix to get games at the NHL level at some point this season.
Markus Niemelainen, Edmonton's 3rd pick, 63rd overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, had a strong showing in Penticton as well. The 6'5" defender plays a smooth, effective game and is an intriguing prospect moving forward.
Up front the line of Joey Benik-Drake Caggiula-Jesse Puljujarvi led the way for the Oilers in the Rookie Tournament.
Puljujarvi, the 4th-overall pick in the 2016 draft registered 2-4-6 in just two games, and at times looked to be on another level than the other players in the Tournament. At 6'3", 208 pounds the explosive winger who led Finland to the 2016 World Junior and U-18 Championship, showed on numerous occasions in Penticton why he is in the mix to make the Oilers this season.
Caggiula, heavily-recruited after winning an NCAA Championship at North Dakota in April, made the adjustment to centre and started to find a rhythm by the middle of his second game against Winnipeg on Monday. Caggiula registered 25-26-51 at North Dakota last season.
Benik picked 4-2-6 in three games in Penticton and the opportunistic scorer will compete for a job in Bakersfield this season.
Two other forwards had strong weekends in Penticton: Jaedon Descheneau and Chad Butcher.
Like Benik, Descheneau will compete for a spot in Bakersfield this season. Descheneau basically missed all of last season with a shoulder injury but was a prolific goal scorer in the WHL topping out at 44-54-98 with Kootenay in 2013-14.
Butcher, had 74 points with Medicine Hat last season as a 19 year-old and gave the Oilers some speed down the middle and played with some bite; he is expected to be one of the top 20 year-olds in the WHL this season.
GOLDEN BEARS TO WATCH:
After winning back-to-back National Championships in 2013-14 and 2014-15 under current Edmonton Oilers Assistant Coach Ian Herbers, the Golden Bears were unable to pull off the three-peat under First-Year Head Coach Serge Lajoie last season.
The Bears have lost 7 of their top 10 scorers from last season, including four of their top five as Jordan Hickmott, Levko Koper, Kruise Reddick, Brett Ferguson, James Dobrowolski, and defencemen Jordan Rowley and Thomas Carr all graduated.
For most programs, this would be a significant hit but the expectation is Alberta might actually be better this season after a very strong recruiting class.
General Manager Stan Marple and Lajoie brought in four impact forwards, though we will only see two tonight. Trevor Cox had 82 and 109 point seasons with Medicine Hat in the WHL and he is expected to play on a line with Luke Philp who was at San Jose's Rookie Camp this past week-end. Philp had 77 and 82 point seasons with Kootenay. Tyson Baillie was at Florida's camp after registering 43-52-95 with the Kelowna last season and Todd Fiddler a former 50 goal scorer in the WHL will be top 6 forwards for the Bears as well.
Graeme Craig a 6'5" defenceman who spent a year in the Oilers organization along with New Jersey draft Ryan Rehill help shore up the Bears "D", though Alberta still has PP quarterback Jason Fram (62 points with Spokane in '14-'15 at San Jose's Camp.
Key returning Golden Bears include two-time WHL 30+ goal scorer Jamie Crooks and former Edmonton Oil Kings Riley Keiser (2014 Memorial Cup winner) and Stefane Legault who had 30 points in 27 games last season.
Golden Bears starter Luke Siemens (17-8-1, 2.21 GAA, .906 SVP) will be pushed by NAIT-transfer Kenny Cameron and Arizona draft choice Brendan Burke in goal.
Bob Stauffer is Radio Analyst of the Oilers Broadcasts on the Oilers Radio Network and Host of "Oilers Now" Monday thru Friday Noon to 2:00PM on 630 CHED. You can follow him on twitter at @bob_stauffer
-- Bob Stauffer, Special to edmontonoilers.com