SUN Hockey Pool

The wait is over

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

A valiant, but failed stretch drive. A bitter lockout. Brand new rules. Chris Pronger. A salary cap. Smaller goalies. Mike Peca. Stripped down superteams. Shootouts. And parity. For the love of all things black and frozen, parity.

It's been a long, strange trip since Edmontonians last watched the Oilers in a game that mattered, 18 months that saw their gamut of emotions run from frustration and anger during the CBA talks to helplessness and disinterest during the lost season to relief, shock and out of this world excitement when the league came back and the stars came to town.

Tonight, the wait is finally over. All that's left is to cut the ribbon on the NHL's grand reopening and drop the puck.

"I'm as excited for a game as I've been in a long, long time," said Oilers winger Ethan Moreau.

"Everything is accumulating into one big night. The lockout, the improvements we've made, the rule changes, the excitement of the fans, all of it is coming together at once."

NOBODY HAS A CLUE

And the best part is nobody has a clue what to expect.

"In the other years you kind of did," continued Moreau. "But this time there's a lot of uncertainty, excitement of the unknown. You don't know how the new rules are going to change the game, you don't know how our power play or PK is going to be, how the new players are going to fit on other teams and how everyone else is going to stack up.

"There's no guarantees out there. I don't think you can go into one locker-room in the west and find a team that doesn't think it's going to challenge for the division title. It's going to be interesting how it unfolds, there's going to be a lot of surprises."

It used to be that you could set your watch by Dallas, Colorado or Detroit (who won eight of the last 10 conference titles). Now it's a fresh slate. No playing cat and mouse in the pre-season with home teams playing their stars and visitors dressing their scrubs. No dressing half a lineup and dismissing the result.

Now it's Colorado's A lineup against Edmonton's A lineup. Former superpower against the CBA's greatest benefactor.

"From a coaching standpoint we're anxious to evaluate what we have," said Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish. "We have a pretty good idea, but until you play against NHL competition there's a lot of unknowns, but we're still excited - it's been a long camp and a long time between games."

Too long. But all of that is over now, and judging from the buzz around town and the run on tickets, forgiven. Now it's about hockey, and how the Oilers will figure into the new world order.

"The expectations are very high, mainly because we're placing them on ourselves," said Peca, who's centring Edmonton's top two pre-season scorers, Raffi Torres and Ales Hemsky. "We expect our team to be not just at the top of our division, but at the top of our conference.

"The key is to come out and have a good start and not get too far ahead of ourselves. It's a long season and it's going to be a tough season. If we can keep our goals short term and accomplish them early then we'll be better off for it."

MVP DEFENCEMAN

For all of the anticipation that comes from a faster game, an even playing field and an MVP defenceman who can play 30 minutes a night, the Oilers begin the new season hoping to answer some rather glaring questions. Can special teams turn it around when it matters? Can Cory Cross and Alexei Semenov? Is Ty Conklin cut from No.1 cloth? Anybody seen Radek Dvorak?

"For me it's a question of, can some of the guys that haven't had great camps turn their games around," said MacTavish.

"That's the only question mark I have. We have probably three or four guys in that category, the rest of the guys, most of them, have exceeded the expectations of training camp. But we've had some holes in our lineup the last couple of games and the players can quickly erase those memories by having a good game."


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