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Better Than in the Video Games

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Columbus, OHIO--I took the show on the road for today’s installment of the competition. My friend’s birthday was Saturday, so naturally we went to Columbus to celebrate it by watching the Blue Jackets. It was his wish to see his favorite team, the Edmonton Oilers, and I will never turn down an opportunity to watch hockey live. It is the mentality you must have if you willingly go see the Western Conference bottom-feeders slap-fight it out.

My friend has lived in Ashtabula, Ohio his entire life but is as die-hard an Edmonton Oilers fan that I have ever seen? I have never met any others, but he seems as happy about his team as one can be--especially considering the Oilers are dead last in the entire NHL. That loyalty has to count for something.

His story of becoming an Edmonton fan in Northeast Ohio is a classic tale; everyone knows the best team in NHLPA Hockey 93 for Sega Genesis was the Edmonton Oilers. That was the good year, back when fighting was still in the game and Clarence Campbell was a conference and not a trivia answer.

How can you argue the logic of racking up CGI Stanley Cups? Back then, without an Ohio hockey team, geography took a back seat to the digital team on TV. This is especially interesting because, at the time, we knew Edmonton to be located somewhere between Wisconsin and the North Pole. Yet, it is an indescribable bond a child forms with the team they play as. Video game players look to us as their coach, their GM, and the all-time goal scorer. Vincent Damphousse’s moves in that game were almost enough to convince any second-grader to become an Oilers fan. The “Vinny” days of Edmonton glory are long gone, and my friend had no control over Edmonton’s fate on this night.

Coming into the game, the Oilers had only 21 victories. With more than 85% of the season now behind them, the Oilers are still trying to hit double-digit wins on the road. Coming off a playoff season in 2009, Columbus has not fared much better this season: 27 wins and the 14th seed in the West.

I anticipated the match-up was going to play out as the antithesis of the recent Gold Medal Game between the U.S. and Canada. Outside of the fact that both were hockey games, the only thing that qualified these events for Venn diagram representation was Oilers defenseman Ryan Whitney. Other than that one common character, the scenery of the play and the talent-level of the actors were expected to be polar opposites of the Vancouver Games.

Columbus captain Rick Nash missed his fourth consecutive game with a lower body injury and a side of the flu. As for the scratch list for the Oilers, insert all their star players. Sheldon Souray, Fernando Pisani, Alex Hemsky, and (my friend’s favorite) Nikolai Khabibulin were nowhere to be found in Nationwide Arena. Happy Birthday.

With all that working against it, we were among the 13,603 who were more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of the game. The understudies did not disappoint, as a back-and-forth battle saw the hometown Jackets capture a 5-3 win.

Jakub Voracek continues to blossom into a younger version of his fellow countryman, Jaromir Jagr. The hair is long; he is a left-handed shot, but prefers the right wing for that quick shot from below the faceoff dot. The sharper the angle, the higher the shooting percentage seems to be. Such was the case in the waning moments of a scoreless first period. Voracek took momentum into the locker room with a shot that beat Oilers goalie Devan Dubnyk glove side.

In watching Jake’s patience--stick always on the ice--as he gathered the Derick Brassard pass, it was textbook Jagr. And the way he beat Dubnyk was true to Czech form. There is no wind up to their one-timers. Goals are not scored by the speed of the puck, but the quickness of the release.

His 12th goal of the season was so reminiscent of Jagr that if Voracek dyed his hair jet black--and was wearing 68 on his sweater--I would say they are the same person. Even the celebration was a spot-on replica. There was a spin of the stick, a tap of the blade on the ice, a drop of the head, and then a skate to teammates. There was no jumping up on the half-wall, no fist-pump, or even a raise of the hands. Voracek acts like he has been there before. People like that have a knack of getting there again; a reward for a lack of flash.

The goal of the night occurred before most people found their seats again in the third. Defenseman Marc Methot, who typically hovers around the blue line, saw an open lane to the net. The tape-to-tape play was like a beautiful Princeton back-door cut on the hardwood. Antoine Vermette found the streaking Methot cross-ice for a 3-1 lead.

Kristian Huselius filled in for Nash brilliantly, collecting 4 points (1 goal and 3 assists) en route to first-star-of-the-game honors.
On the other end of the ice, it was good to see Steve Mason tally 29 saves. “Mase” needs performances like this to build his confidence back up for next season. If he is down on himself, he is not helping anyone. But when Mason is on his game, management will gladly look to build the future Blue Jackets around him.

In front of both goalies was a series of what appeared to be 3-on-2 practice drills. There seemed to be a player in the wrong color jersey behind the last line of defense on every goal. Yet, in a weird way, it is sometimes fun to watch the weaker teams in the NHL for this reason. They struggle, not because they cannot fill up the score sheet, but because of habitual defensive lapses. It translates to high scores and free Wendy’s chili when the Blue Jackets light the lamp three or more times.

The Methot goal came at the expense of a napping Oiler and a feeble glove hand of Dubnyk, but it still looked pretty. The odd-man rushes make the game look so much faster with the open ice and saucer passes over guys sliding around. I could not have asked for more than a 5-goal third period and 61 total shots. It was proof that the NHL lockout of 2005 was actually one of the best business decisions in sports history. No Stanley Cup hurt, but the time off trimmed up the league and brought back a faster, younger, much more enjoyable product.

It was a game that was enjoyed by all, even the lone Oilers fan in the building. Neither team is going anywhere this season, so he will gladly take the free chili and the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.

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