When it’s mid March and you’re a distant 30th, a million miles from relevance and even farther from the playoffs, the stretch drive is usually meaningless.
You play out the string and plan your vacation.
Unless all your players get injured and half the team has just been called up from the minors. Then it looks like the first day of training camp.
The annual Edmonton Oilers funeral March is different this time. Smiles, excitement, anticipation, energy. It’s not often that you see a bottom feeder this fired up about the last 12 games, and you can blame it on Oklahoma City.
“I hope that’s what they were looking for,” said Alex Giroux, one of seven players on Edmonton’s Thursday night roster who started the season with the AHL Barons. “For us, we’re not playing on a last-place team, we’re up here to play in the NHL. We’re just excited, pumped to be in the NHL. It’s game 71 for them, Game 1 for us.”
The 3-1 loss to Phoenix meant nothing to Edmonton in the standings, but to call it meaningless is bewildering to the guys who played it. Most of them can only dream about being around the NHL long enough to take it for granted.
For Teemu Hartikainen, 20, and Chris Vande Velde, 24, Thursday was the first regular season game of their lives.
“This means a lot to us,” said Hartikainen, who picked up the first point of his career with a third-period assist. “These are really big games for us. There is a lot of excitement and energy, everybody wants to show what they can do. If I can do my best when I’m here it’s going to be good for me next season.”
For Ryan O’Marra, whose contract expires at the end of this season, it’s one last chance to show GM Steve Tambellini that he’s worth another deal. Giroux, a big gritty winger with hands, is also a free agent this summer — he gets to audition for a team that could really use a big gritty winger with some hands.
“Being up here is huge for me,” said Vande Velde. “It’s a great opportunity to show what I have to put forward. All of us. It’s not going to be a question of work ethic or energy.”
It wasn’t Thursday night. Down 2-0 after 40 minutes to a Phoenix team that’s fighting for home ice advantage in the playoffs, the Oilers, icing a lineup that had 11 players with two or fewer NHL goals this season, fought back to make it 2-1 instead of accepting their predetermined fate.
Even after a bad call put them down 3-1, they played to the final whistle, outshooting the Coyotes 36-17.
They had a hundred excuses to lie down, but didn’t.
Unlike last year’s stretch divers, this group is glad to be here.
“If you had a choice would you rather not have that than walking around with all kinds of doom and gloom,” said Renney. “It could be a country music song in here. We’re not that. We’re good. We’re working hard to put a product on the ice that we can be proud of. We understand our situation but we’re not walking around asking people to step back from the ledge.”
That there’s no black cloud in the room is not entirely AHL-related, though. Giroux was here before Thursday’s airlift and noticed that the Oilers still had a pretty good spring in their step for a 30th place team.
“Last week when I was here, the energy was nice in the room, they had a good atmosphere,” he said. “My hat off to the coaches and the players, a last place team, playing hard, playing well. It’s awesome to come into an organization like this.”