Monday, May 8, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Among the incidents reported at a recent watch party outside of the Edmonton Oilers’ Rogers Place were a stabbing, a stampede over a barricade and, um, a bitten finger, according to the Edmonton Journal.
The over-capacity crowd in “the Ice District” for Game 1 of Edmonton’s NHL playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights last Wednesday was so rabid that the city had to amend the rules and enhance security measures. Acts of senseless violence were seemingly, and fortunately, curtailed during Saturday’s Game 2 but the scene still looked like pandemonium.
And that was with the Oilers playing 1,5000 miles South in Las Vegas. Imagine the atmosphere tonight when the beloved franchise returns home with arguably its best team in decades for its first home game in a week and a half.
The Golden Knights are entering a lion’s den, and they’re seen as the lamb. The old “hostile environment” description doesn’t do justice to the reception Vegas will receive when the puck drops at 5:30 p.m. tonight in the Oil Capital of Canada.
And the Golden Knights couldn’t care less.
They’ve regularly escaped enemy territory without harm all season long, sporting the NHL’s second-best road record at 26-7-8. A trip up North might be exactly what the Golden Knights need after a non-competitive 5-1 loss to the Oilers in Game 2 to tie the best-of-seven series at one victory apiece.
“I don’t think anything rattles us too much,” captain Mark Stone said of heading to Edmonton for Game 3.
In a break from historic playoff norms, no one seems too rattled by any opponents’ building this year. The Oilers’ victory on Sunday pushed NHL road teams to a 60% win rate through two games of every second round playoff series, at a 33-22 overall record.
Some have gone as far as to suggest the existence of a “road-ice advantage” in these playoffs. That’s premature, as some regression is likely coming with the home teams bouncing back by the time the Stanley Cup Final concludes next month.
Just don’t automatically expect the Oilers to contribute to the trend turning around in this series. The Golden Knights were ahead of the curve in the whole thrive-away-from-home craze.
It was a key component in securing the franchise’s third-ever Pacific Division crown. Even when Vegas looked lost early in the season with six straight losses at T-Mobile Arena, they made up points in the standings by looking like a different team across the rest of the country and Canada.
Vegas was particularly productive in Alberta, losing only once in regulation out of four trips to the western Canadian province. The Golden Knights split with the Oilers at Rogers Place, losing 4-3 in overtime on November 19, 2022, but frustrating superstar Connor McDavid, who called his game “ugly” before chipping in a late game-winner.
The much more meaningful showdown commenced on March 25 on the front end of a home-and-home between the Pacific division rivals. Vegas desperately needed at least one result over Edmonton to secure its lead atop the standings and found it with a 4-3 overtime victory where Jack Eichel outplayed McDavid and fellow Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl.
That win was ultimately the difference in allowing Vegas to add another year to its division championship banner considering it edged Edmonton by two points in the final standings.
The Golden Knights were desperate for a big night from Eichel in that game and he delivered. Vegas fans must hope he senses something similar is needed going into Game 3.
The top-line forward has been largely invisible in the series so far, save for an empty-net goal after a nifty takeaway off McDavid’s stick late in Game 1. Stone, Vegas’ other best player, hasn’t been much better as his advanced on-ice numbers have taken a nosedive compared to their typical lofty standards.
But Stone also had a rough start in his return from back surgery in the first round against Winnipeg. Vegas suffered an identical 5-1 loss in Game 1 against Winnipeg before beginning to find themselves with a victory in Game 2 ahead of putting together perhaps their best performances North of the border at Canada Life Centre.
“Game 1, we didn’t play well and the first period of Game 2, we weren’t great,” Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb said of the Winnipeg series after the Game 2 loss to Edmonton. “We have all the confidence in the world that we’ll do what we need to do again going forward.”
It won’t be easy. After Game 2, Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft spoke of looking forward to his team getting a lift from “our passionate fan base.”
There’s no doubt they’ll be out in full force attempting to make it as difficult as possible on the Golden Knights. But Vegas says it won’t crack. Of course, every team says something to that effect, but the Golden Knights just might deserve the benefit of the doubt.
They’ve shown they’re up to task.
“We’ve been a good road team all year, so we’ve got to go out on the road with our boots on ready to go,” Stone said.