VANCOUVER - The wait is over. The Edmonton Oilers' 2012-13 season has arrived, and it begins tonight against the rival Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena.
With an earlier-than-usual start time (6:00PM PT), the club's game day routine began with a brisk, 30-minute morning skate eight-and-a-half hours ahead of puck drop. Head Coach Ralph Krueger will make no changes to his lineup, sticking with the same combinations he's run all week at practice.
Devan Dubnyk will get the start in goal while Magnus Paajarvi, Mark Fistric and ex-Canuck Darcy Hordichuk will sit as healthy scratches.
Eighteen-year-old Nail Yakupov and 22-year-old Justin Schultz will be making their NHL debuts in what could be a hostile environment tonight.
"I'm not nervous. I want to play my game and keep it simple out there," Yakupov said after Sunday's morning skate. "I don't want to try too hard and do something crazy. Even though there's a bit of pressure, I'm not too nervous about it."
As he has been all week, Yakupov will play alongside Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky.
"The chemistry has been pretty good. We have a good line and we're going to work hard, play hard and play for the team. Just play."
"Excited. Nervous," laughed Schultz, acknowledging that he'll likely hear some boos from the boisterous Rogers Arena crowd tonight. "I heard a little bit of it in Abbotsford (in November with the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons), so I suppose I'm used to it by now and I'm not too worried about it."
"They're both very calm and well-prepared right now," Krueger said of the rookies. "Justin knows it's heavier and faster at this level (compared to the AHL), but we like the space he's in. He's a very deceptive player and he's going to be hard to get to. With Nail, he's going to add another dimension to our offensive scheme -- Justin, too, so we're pretty excited about it all."
Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff, an 11-year NHL veteran, made his big-league debut On Dec. 6, 2000. In a 4-0 win over the Nashville Predators, Horcoff picked up an assist. He's been reminding Yakupov and Schultz to savor the moment and bask in the glory they'll one day look back on as an even greater accomplishment. "The NHL is the pinnacle of professional hockey. It doesn't get any bigger or better," the captain said.
"The older you get, the more you're able to look back on and appreciate your accomplishments as an NHL player. When you're young, everyone thinks they're going to play 1,000 games, 20-plus years in the League and that everything will come easy. It's obviously a lot more difficult than that and, as a veteran, I've come to cherish the little things, like longevity, a lot more. When I look back at my first (NHL) game, it's honestly my favourite memory as a player in this league. It's a moment you strive for your whole career and when it finally comes, the feeling is unbeatable."
FACING THE CANUCKS
The Oilers won only one of six meetings with the Canucks last season, losing all three at Rogers Arena, and were outscored by a 20-13 margin. In order to stake their claim as one of the League's up-and-coming squads, the Oilers will need to have more success against their bitter division rivals this year.
In this lockout-shortened, all in-conference 48-game season, every night matters. Eighteen matchups will be played against the Northwest Division, including five vs. Vancouver.
The Canucks kicked off their regular season Saturday night, but a four-point outing by Teemu Selanne spurred the visiting Anaheim Ducks to an impressive (or sour, by the home team's standards) 7-3 victory.
At this point, it's unclear as to who will start in goal for the Canucks. Cory Schneider, the undisputed No. 1 heading into the season, made only nine saves on 14 shots Saturday. Roberto Luongo came into the game midway through the second period. The veteran, who could still be traded at some point this season, is expected to get the nod.
"It doesn't change anything that we do," said Horcoff. "They're a great team and will be challenging for the division again this year and we know that. We're not a team that's going to focus on the opposition as much as what we need to do to be successful. After a loss like that, chances are they're going to come out and better than they were (Saturday) and have a bit of a chip on their shoulder. We expect a good, fast-paced and physical game tonight."
Hard to believe in some respects, but it's been 289 days since the Oilers last took to the ice for a regular-season game. Fittingly enough, it happened on Apr. 7, 2012, at Rogers Arena.
"It's been so long ago that I barely remember it now," Horcoff laughed, looking back at the loss to the Canucks to close out the 2011-12 campaign. "We're just excited to get going. It's obviously going to take a couple games to get going -- after watching the game's last night, there were some that were a little bit sloppy, and without exhibition games it just takes a little bit of time. Right now we're focused on getting our team game together as quick as possible.
Season series: This is the first of four matchups between the teams. The Canucks took five of six from the Oilers in 2011-12.
Big story: It didn't take very long for a goaltending controversy to brew in Vancouver. Roberto Luongo, who has been the subject of trade rumors for months, found himself between the pipes for the Canucks on Saturday night after starter Cory Schneider allowed five goals on 14 shots and was pulled in a 7-3 loss to visiting Anaheim.
Oilers: Is this the year the young and exciting Oilers make the jump into the Stanley Cup Playoffs? With up-and-coming stars Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle all a year older, combined with the additions of Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz, it's not farfetched to think Edmonton can qualify for the big dance. Obviously, Vancouver will provide the Oilers with a tough challenge right off the bat.
"It's a game in Vancouver where everybody's expecting Vancouver to take the points so let's go right at them, right away and let's play to win and not to try and keep the game close or not to lose," new Oilers coach Ralph Krueger said. "It's about playing forward, playing with our speed and using our weapons all the time. That's what we're going to worry about."
Canucks: Schneider, who signed a three-year, $12-million contract last summer, was pulled from the Vancouver net after allowing goals to Corey Perry and Kyle Palmieri just 11 seconds apart early in the second period. It wasn't exactly the season debut the 26-year-old was hoping for, but there are still 47 games to go.
"I know in a market like this, you have to be accountable and responsible," Schneider said. "You have to perform and produce, and I didn't."