Thursday, February 16, 2012

Toronto Maple Leafs 4 at Edmonton Oilers 3 (OT) - February 15, 2012


It was a quiet ride up Highway 2 as we left Calgary and the horrible memories of that 5-1 loss behind and hoped for better things in Edmonton. Edmonton calls itself the City of Champions, and it ain't bragging when you can back it up, which they do with 5 Stanley Cup titles and 13 Grey Cup championships as well. Yeah, it has been a over 20 years since the last time Lord Stanley's mug was raised here, but until the Leafs win one, I'm not going to criticize. Still, the Oilers are struggling and I was hoping the Leafs could salvage this two-game Alberta excursion with a win.

Rexall Place


Located northeast of downtown in a rather hardscrabble neighbourhood, Rexall Place was opened in 1974, making it the third oldest rink in the league (only the two New York arenas are older). It was originally named the Northlands Coliseum after the non-profit organization that owns the arena, but naming rights have since been sold to Rexall, who runs drugstores in Canada among other interests. There is an LRT stop here, as well as parking lots surrounding the facility. I stayed at the hotel across Wayne Gretzky drive so don't know how much the parking is.


Despite its age, the arena has been renovated on a regular basis and has some of the best atmosphere I've seen in the league, helped no doubt by the thousands of Leaf fans. Before you enter, make sure to check out the Wayne Gretzky statue next to the east entrance.


There is only one row of suites so the second tier is very close to the ice and gives great views. The club level is mostly underneath the first level of seats so it doesn't impact the seating bowl.



We had club seats and spent some time wandering around here, but there isn't much other than an $18 buffet before the game. You can watch the Oilers come out of their dressing room (that's the door below), but that wasn't something I particularly wanted to see.



The main concourse is flush with concessions but there wasn't much outside your typical offerings. I had poutine which was surprisingly good but is now commonplace in western arenas. Perhaps the only unique offering were the perogies as Edmonton boasts a large population of Ukrainian heritage. A Mediterranean burger, which seemed to be a monthly special, was also tempting.


It is easy to walk around the venue, although the concourse does get busy as game time approaches. There is a smaller concourse above the second seating level which is much less crowded, but has fewer concessions as a result.



There is a third seating level which is still reasonably close and there is a small standing area at the very top,but no concourse. Go up here, if only to take some pictures.


One unique touch is the 30-foot high oil derrick that is lowered before the game so the Oilers can skate through it as they enter the ice.


The Oilers have a storied history and the banners to prove it (below). But as I walked around the concourse, I was disappointed that there weren't more displays dedicated to those great teams of the 1980s. There were a few pictures of record-breaking moments, and even pictures of some concert performances, but nothing more impressive. I really think they should do a better job of honouring these players who made Edmonton the City of Champions.


That would be my only complaint though. I really like this place; it maintains an old-school feel without sacrificing the modern amenities. The location is certainly not the best, and there is talk of building a downtown arena to replace Rexall Place, so if you haven't been here yet, try to stop by soon.

The Game


After being spanked in Calgary, Toronto had to come out strong and they did that when Joffrey Lupul scored just 4o seconds in,beating Nikolai Khabibulin (above) on a great give-and-go with Phil Kessel.


Just 58 seconds after that, Matthew Lombardi received a perfect pass from Cody Franson and broke in alone on Khabibulin, deked and slipped the puck through the five-hole to make it 2-0. The Oilers called timeout and responded with their own goal after 54 seconds when goalie James Reimer negated an icing by touching the puck, allowing Edmonton's Lennart Petrell to pass the puck out to Ben Eager (below, beating up Mike Brown0, who had no problem putting in the open net.


Three goals in less than three minutes and it certainly looked like we would be in for a lot of goals, but that was in until midway through the second with Taylor Hall tipped in a pass from Sam Gagner to tie the game. Edmonton dominated the period outshooting the Leafs 13-3, but Remier was strong and kept his team in the game.


In the third, Oiler Ryan Jones dumped the puck over the glass and sheepishly headed to the penalty box, a victim of the dreaded delay of game infraction. The Leafs wasted no time converting when Jake Gardiner blasted a point shot that beat Khabibulin, who appeared to be screened by Ladislav Smid (below).



This set up the countdown. Could the Leafs hold on? The answer, as usual when I am in attendance, was no. With just over 4 minutes to go, Jordan Eberle stole the puck from David Steckel and wristed a perfect shot over Reimer's arm to tie the game.


Fortunately, the Leafs didn't collapse and managed to get it to overtime. The last two Toronto victories I have seen were both in shootouts, so I confidently predicted that the trend would continue, but Toronto was even better. After Dion Phaneuf broke up an Oiler rush, Lupul and Tim Connolly broke down the ice on a 2-on-1. Lupul fed Connolly with a perfect pass and Connolly tipped it in, his first goal in 18 games. Leafs win!! A huge victory to stop a 4-game slide and keep their tenuous grip on that final playoff spot in the east.



This was a great game, end-to-end action, and some fantastic goals. All four Leafs' tallies were right in front of us too, which made things even better. Sitting in the first row of an NHL game when your team wins on the road is an experience that cannot be duplicated in any other sport. This will be one of the greatest memories of my lifetime and will definitely be the highlight of the trip.




Notes

We had the same seats as for the Calgary game, first row in the home team's zone , looking at the face-off circle, goalie on our left. An interesting coincidence that those seats were available at both venues. I doubt I'll ever sit that close again though, it's just too expensive.

Luke Schenn was a healthy scratch for Toronto, leading to more speculation about his future with the club. He's a +8, so yeah, need to get rid of him and keep Komisarek.

I have now seen the Leafs on the road 19 times in 17 NHL venues. Their record is 6-12-1.

Next Up

I'll be visiting family in the small town of Camrose today and checking out an Alberta Junior Hockey League game that evening. It will be a huge difference from these last two nights, but I'll post a small update in a couple of days.

Best,

Sean

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