THE WAITING GAME It’s been 180 days since the Oilers last played a regular-season game and even longer, 182, since Rexall Place played host.
Now we’re close, but not close enough. Another 54 hours stand in the way, as the Oilers anxiously prepare for the team’s home- and season-opener on Sunday vs. Pittsburgh.
The Oilers held an up-tempo, one-hour and 45-minute practice this morning at Rexall Place. Head Coach Tom Renney pushed the pace, preaching energy, physical play and communication throughout the team’s spirited skate.
The Penguins’ 2011-12 campaign opened yesterday with a 4-3 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena. The rink was rocking there and across the league as the NHL’s regular-season got underway.
When Pittsburgh arrives at Rexall Place, Sunday’s home-opener will be charged, and the wait will have been well worth it.
“It's almost surreal,” Theo Peckham said. “You're 22-23 and some guys are 18 [years-old] in here. You go out, they're announcing your name and everyone is cheering for you. It's an awesome experience.
“Who would have thought that when you're kid playing House League that you'd be here some day. Opening night is very special.”
“It's going to be electric out there,” Ryan Jones added. “We've got the greatest fans in the league, by far. They’re going to be crazy-loud.”
Ladislav Smid, who has been medically cleared to play, is questionable but could get the opportunity to suit-up in Sunday’s matchup. Having participated in three home-openers with the Oilers, the 25-year-old is understandably pumped to make this one happen, too.
“I've done everything I could to be in this game,” he said. “There’s going to be great energy with Ryan (Smyth) being back and getting another No. 1 overall pick, I think the fans are really anxious for the beginning of the season, and so are we."
Along with Taylor Fedun and Taylor Chorney, Smid had to leave last Thursday’s game in Minnesota. It was suspected to be a long-term problem at the time, but Smid’s rehab schedule has helped him improve much more quickly.
“We were worried about how serious it would be, but I had a couple x-rays and nothing is broken,” he said. “There were some strained ligaments, but nothing that serious.
“I’m mostly pain-free. I had a couple battles today and it was strong; the strength is there. In my mind, I'm good to go. Now it's the coaches' decision. I'm recovering well, and the rehab and exercises have helped me out big-time this past week.”
Head Coach Tom Renney is pleased with No. 5’s quick recovery, but is in no rush to pencil him into the lineup so soon.
“We'll see,” he said. “He's been medically cleared. We'll give him some contact again tomorrow and then make a decision based on that.”
Edmonton’s other hobbled rearguard, Ryan Whitney, is also nearing a return. Limited to only 35 games in 2010-11, the 28-year-old has been extremely disappointed in his ankle’s stubborn healing process.
It’s coming along, but at a snail's pace.
“My strength is getting better,” Whitney said. “It's getting stronger each day.
“[Pain] comes back and it gets sore, it's just not as strong and the pain isn't as bad, so that's good. It's not a sharp pain right now either, and that's what's important.”
“Maybe, I don't know yet,” he added when asked about playing in Sunday’s season-opener. “I haven't talked to Tom (Renney) yet. Probably not, but you never know. We’ll see.”
Whitney last played on Dec. 28, 2010 when the Oilers endured a 4-2 loss on home ice. His 3:48 TOI that night put the brakes on a commendable campaign in which he’d scored a pair, adding 25 assists (second-best in the NHL, at the time) and a team-high +13 rating.
When Whitney is slotted back into the Oilers’ lineup, the smooth-skating D man will have missed over nine months; and without a pre-season tune-up to help guide his early-season return, Whitney is expecting a challenge.
“It's not ideal,” he laughed. “No one would really choose to do that. Other guys are in the same boat and it's something you sometimes end up having to do.”
Missing Game 1 of 82 may be a necessary swallow, but Smid and Whitney need not be rushed back in, assuming they’re not ready to skate at the league’s highest level, so says the Oilers' bench boss.
“I'll sit down with him and T.D. (Forss, Head Athletic Therapist), and we'll talk about where he is and how he feels and start to draw some conclusions, at least.”
PREDICTION TIME - WHO WILL SCORE THE FIRST GOAL?
Ryan Jones, Ladislav Smid, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk all weighed-in:
Jones: “I'm going to go with Jordan Eberle. He's been hot in the pre-season. Ryan Smyth will score the second goal, I think.”
Smid: “I hope Ryan Smyth or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, because the building would go crazy.”
Peckham: “I'll go with Smytty, Ryan Smyth. A wildcard, a 'blackhorse,' so to speak, will be me. I'm going to be up in the play; I'll be up there like lightning.”
Peckham scored three times last season, including a miraculous marker on Jan. 4 vs. Detroit at Rexall Place. No. 24 leaped into the corner-glass, celebrating his tally with equally as excited teammates.
Can we expect a similar celebration?
“They put some extra supports in the corners for me this year,” Peckham laughed. “In all honesty, I've been waiting for about three years to do that. It was something I always wanted to do. I saw guys do it all the time and wanted to know what it was like.”
Dubnyk: “Hallsy's got it. He's been buzzing all pre-season. It might go in off Jonsey's face, actually. I’ll go with Jonsey's face or Hallsy's stick.”
We'll reveal more opening-night predictions tomorrow, right here on edmontonoilers.com
-- Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick