Sunday, September 14, 2014

Penticton 2014: Oilers 4, Flames 3 - My Post-Game Six-Pack

What a tease of a game it was on Saturday night at Penticton's South Okanagan Events Centre.

Not necessarily because it was that well played of a game. But because in so many other ways it was a flashback to the glory days of the Battle of Alberta when the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers didn't dislike each other, they hated each other.

There were three fights on the night, a couple more almost-fights and countless skirmishes as a bunch of kids -- a majority of whom had not yet been born the last time the Flames and Oilers met in the playoffs, went at each other with venom. The furore, the emotion, it reminded one of the glory days of the 80s and early 90s when it was an all-out war whenever these two organizations got together. Kevin McClelland  vs. Jim Peplinski, Marty McSorley vs. Tim HunterMark Messier vs. Joel Otto, If you're too young to have first-hand memory of those battles, it's called YouTube, kids.

The Calgary-Edmonton NHL rivalry used to be as good as it gets. But it's become more of an after-thought lately. The so-called 'Battle' of Alberta has morphed into more of a pillow fight.

The final score Saturday night in front of a energetic crowd was 4-3 for the Oilers, who were led by two goals by defenceman CJ Ludwig -- son of ex-NHLer Craig Ludwig, famous for wearing those fridge door-sized shin pads.

From my vantage point, which in Penticton is more like 40 feet above the ice, here's my take on what I saw and what I heard in the dressing room afterwards.

Post-Game Six-Pack

1. Slick, Slippery and Surly Sam 

Wow, can this guy ever play. I haven't changed my mind that he will still go back to junior for one more year but watching him tonight, you can see why he was in the conversation to be first overall last draft. He does everything above average and executes it at top speed.

When he's got the puck, he's a slippery guy to stop. His head is up all the time and his ability to shift laterally on a dime puts defenders on their heels. Also, while he's lankier than Sean Monahan was at this time last year, he doesn't seem to be any less sturdy on his feet. He did a great impression of team-mate Hunter Smith in the second period stepping up and levelling Travis Ewanyk with a huge open-ice hit.

Lined up all evening alongside the eternally-entertaining Johnny Gaudreau, both of them were good all night -- Gaudreau had a nice goal once again and in the third, Bennett scored on a pretty wrap-around.

"Me and Johnny had a lot of chemistry and the confidence there was really good. I think that's really what stood out for me today," said Bennett. "It's amazing. He's an unbelievably skilled player and any time you get a chance to play with a guy like that, good things are going to happen for you."

But on this night, let's focus about Bennett,

"He was much better tonight than I thought he was last night and that's kind of what we're expecting, that he's going to continue to get better each game that he plays as his confidence rises and he gets up to the speed that the games get played at," said coach Ryan Huska. "He'll have another step once main camp comes but I thought he did a nice job in raising his level from last night to tonight."

There's no lacking confidence with him either. Earlier in the game, he made a cheeky play where he put the puck through an opponent's skates, ducked him and retrieved it on the other side. In the third period, he pulled it off again.

When he doesn't have the puck, he isn't any less fun to watch as he's really aggressive on the forecheck and by that, I mean he's really aggressive. When he makes a beeline for you as a defender, your evacuation strategy is: 1. Get rid of the puck and fast. 2. Duck.

"First game, I was pretty nervous and I wasn't really too sure. Today, I felt a lot more confident out there," Bennet said. "Plus it was a hard hitting, chippy game, the kind of game I love."

2. Garnet Goes to NHL Fantasy Camp

For 23-year-old Garnet Hathaway, who hails from the small fishing village of Kennebunkport in Maine, it must have felt like he was attending one of those NHL fantasy camps where fans (although usually it's accountants in their 50s) pay to experience the opportunity to play hockey with a couple of past greats. Well, except for the 'pay' part. And make that future greats.

On an AHL-only contract, Hathaway's 'big league experience' began late in the first period after Michael Ferland was banished to the penalty box for his scrap with Kale Kessy.

Before he knew it, instead of skating with Turner Elson and Hunter Smith, Hathaway was sent over the boards by Huska to join Bennett and Gaudreau.

"It was... different," admitted Hathaway, with a chuckle. "I mean those two guys have a lot of skill. They're great making time and space for themselves. So when you get out there, as a big guy, you try and get guys out of the way for them, get them more time and space, do anything you can to get them the puck because you know they'll do something with it."

It was on one of those PVR-worthy shifts where the talented twosome did, indeed, do a lot with the puck that got Hathaway on the scoresheet. Eventually the puck landed on his tape and he let a quick shot go. Ty Rimmer made the save but Gaudreau was right there to neatly stash the rebound behind him, tying the score 1-1.

"That's the first time for me really seeing him play and I was impressed. He's a straight line guy and I felt that he was always around pucks with his work ethic," said Huska, in describing Hathaway's tournament debut. "I thought he played real well and that's why he got some shifts (with Gaudreau and Bennett) in the third period as well."

Even after Ferland was out of the penalty box, Hathaway stayed on that line for a couple more shifts. For parts of the third period, he was again reunited with them.

"We had good energy and I think that's what you need. I was glad to stay on the line, can't complain playing with those guys," said Hathaway, who played the past four seasons at Brown University.

When he returned to his regular line, Hathaway continued his strong game. Streaking down the wing in one sequence, he made a nice dangle to go around the defenceman then neatly backhanded a pass into the slot.

"When you're on the ice with (Gaudrean and Bennett), you realize how much time and space they make for themselves and you try to mimic that as much as you can," said Hathaway. "Obviously I don't have the same game as them, but I definitely take parts of it and try to do what I can with it."

3. The Rise and Fall of Ferland and Kanzig

You know those laundry commercials where on one side -- beside a sparkly white shirt, there's a box of Tide. Then on the other side -- beside a soiled, yellowish shirt, there's a box labelled "leading brand".

One night after being two of the best players on the ice, Saturday was very much a 'leading brand' type of night for Michael Ferland and especially Keegan Kanzig, who both struggled.

Ferland seemed to be a step behind all night and didn't have nearly the same impact. It was a real long night for Kanzig, whose frequent visits to the penalty box seemed like the only times he got out of his own end. His rap sheet when the night was over:
  • Slashing minor
  • High-sticking double-minor
  • High-sticking minor
  • Fighting major

However, as Huska astutely explained afterwards, he's not too worried given it's so early in camp.

"They weren't quite as good as they were last night, for sure," acknowledged Huska. "But part of that is to do with them being heavier players too. Back-to-back nights, they have to learn how to play in those situations."

4. Jumpin' Turner Elson

If Turner Elson did have a piece of birthday cake on Saturday to celebrate his 22nd birthday, it must have been a thin piece because he was flying out there all night.

After being the only (healthy) guy already under contract with Calgary to be scratched on Friday night, Elson looked very good in his debut.

"I thought I brought my speed there. I thought I was working hard," Elson said. "I laid the body to get myself into it early and then I started using my hands. I felt confident, more confident than I've ever felt at this tournament so it felt good."

Included was a couple of  dangerous chances he created for himself to tie it late in the game.

"I had a couple chances in the third and just couldn't find the back of the net and that's sometimes how it goes, especially in your first game back. But I thought I was making some plays, got a nice assist at the end, so that helps. It's just a process."

After a strong development camp last summer, things went south after that and Elson eventually ended up playing out the remainder of the remainder of the season for Alaska in the ECHL. 

"At the start, I viewed it as a disappointing thing. But, as I thought about it, I decided I can get some ice here, I can put up some points, I can gain my confidence and I can make a good run at it. I tried to take out all the positives I could and it worked out for me," said Elson.

Alaska went on to win the Kelly Cup.

"The most surreal moment of my life," said Elson. "I've never been past the second round of the playoffs before so to win a championship with the group of guys we had down there was unbelievable."

With Troy Ward gone and the Flames new AHL coach behind the bench this weekend, Elson sees this as an opportunity show first-hand why he should be with Adirondack this year and not with the organization's new ECHL affiliate in Colorado.

"You want to show him that you're a leader and you're out there working every minute of every night," said Elson, who played his junior hockey in Red Deer. "Especially when you have all the Flames guys up in the stands. You have to make sure you prove yourself."

Elson is entering his final year of his three-year entry level contract and with all the prospects that have arrived the last couple years, he will have to have an excellent season to stay in Calgary and earn himself another deal.

5. Earthquake in Penticton


You could surely feel the impact of the hit wherever you were watching the game. In Penticton, I'm convinced the arena moved a couple of inches.

Flames 2014 second round pick Hunter Smith is 6-foot-7, 210 pounds, and he loves playing the body. Appropriately nicknamed "Big Rig", he was certainly that in the third period when he caught Kale Kessy with a thundering open-ice hit.

Having just stepped out of the penalty box, Kessy apparently had no idea there was a semi-trailer parked on the road ahead as he took a pass, looked up ice and wham-o. Here is a link to the video if you missed it (The reaction of Edmonton announcer Gene Principe is golden).

"It was deer in the headlights," admitted Smith. "As soon as he got the puck and looked up ice, I was right there waiting for him. It was a no-doubter for me, I just had to finish the body."

After the hit, the whole building came alive.

"It was a big hit. I was surprised Kessy got up after that hit," said Huska. "Those are the types of hits that you like to see in the game. The game is meant to be physical and if the hits are proper and they're clean, I think everybody's OK with it and it brought the building to life and it brought our bench to life as well."

After playing the night before with Gaudreau and Bill Arnold, on this night Smith was out with Elson and Hathaway.

"Playing with Gaudreau and Arnold, definitely a lot faster for me, a lot of quick, little plays. Today, I got back to my own game," said Smith. "We just chipped pucks in and created a lot of stuff down low off the cycle. You've got to see both sides of me so far."

6. Lack of Discipline

The Flames were shorthanded 11 times on this night. That's way too many.

Kanzig was the poster child with 13 penalty minutes including four minors but he was not alone. Bennett with a hook into the opponent's hands, Smith with banished for a charge after he took about 10 strides before wallpapering another Oiler. Pavel Padakin was sent off for roughing, Ryan Culkin also went for roughing, Kenny Agostino was caught delivering a cross-check and finally, Culkin was caught again, this time for holding.

The end result was three power play goals for the Oilers, who won by one goal. You do the math.

On Tap for Sunday

It's an off-day in terms of the game schedule for Calgary. The Flames will hit the ice for a practice at 1:30 pm local time. The hour-long practice will be followed by a one-hour off-ice practice.

Calgary wraps up the tournament with a game Monday night against Vancouver.


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