EDMONTON - They wanted to play games that mattered in March and April, but that’s pretty hard to do when you’re dead in December.
So, instead, the Edmonton Oilers get one game that matters.
Saturday night against Calgary.
The spoiler role they’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to play down the stretch doesn’t mean anything to fans in Edmonton, most of whom couldn’t care less if Dallas or Anaheim or somebody from the Eastern Conference misses the playoffs because of an Oilers’ upset.
Destroying Calgary’s spring, on the other hand, now that matters. It matters a lot.
If the Oilers can drag Calgary down with them, it would be a momentary glimpse of silver lining in a season-long dark cloud.
“We’re excited about this,” said head coach Tom Renney, whose players are as fired up for this game as any they’ve played all year, mostly because it’s their one and only taste of home-ice playoff atmosphere.
“It’s a huge challenge for them and I think they savour the opportunity. It’s fun to be part of the Battle of Alberta regardless of each other’s circumstances. Calgary still has an opportunity to make the playoffs and for us it’s motivation to do everything we can to prevent it.”
It’s motivation for everyone in town. If Edmonton could only win one game the rest of the year, and they might only win one game the rest of the year, this is it.
Saturday night, nationwide audience, the Flames’ lives at stake. The Oilers can give their fans one last night to cheer — because after this there’s no reason to come to the rink anymore — and showing them Calgary’s head on a pike would earn a standing ovation.
“Hockey Night in Canada, Calgary, and we have a chance to knock them out of the playoffs,” said Jordan Eberle. “This should be fun. I know for sure that everybody in that locker-room is pretty excited about this.”
“For sure, if you had a chance to take down your rival you would do it every day of the week,” added Magnus Paajarvi, who knows what’s at stake, and not just for the Flames. “We don’t want to lose this game to Calgary in front of our fans.
“It’s going to be a fun atmosphere; they really, really need the points and we really, really want to win.”
Of course, there’s still the matter of actually beating Calgary. That’s the hard part in this whole “Welcome To Our Nightmare” scenario.
The Oilers, in their present, diluted state, can’t even score, let alone win. With seven goals in their last eight games (1,0,1,1,1,2,1 and 0), and 29 goals against, it’s hard to imagine them beating anyone.
The Flames aren’t exactly cruising, either. They’re running out of steam after their incredible charge from 14th place, having lost six of their last seven games, but they’d rather dive into a Bell Centre stanchion than lose this one.
“We don’t have the points to play for like Calgary does, but we also won’t be as nervous,” said Paajarvi. “Sometimes when you have so much to play for it can work for you or it can work against you. We can be more relaxed, but we still have to match their battle level.”
That might be the hard part. The Oilers want this game. Calgary needs it. And in life-and-death struggles, need usually triumphs over want. Edmonton will have to manufacture the urgency and intensity that will come naturally to Calgary.
The fans will do their part, the rest is up to the Oilers.
“That’s what it comes down to,” said Theo Peckham. “People pay hard-earned money, the least we can do is come out for 60 minutes and take on one of our rivals. This is where we find out who wants to be an Edmonton Oiler.”