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Oilers let Game 1 slip through fingers, but emotions got away first

San Jose Sharks’ Jannik Hansen and Edmonton Oilers‘ Patrick Maroon vie for the puck during Game 1 on Wednesday.


So many people wanted to experience the Oilers' first stab at the playoffs in more than a decade that the team sold $80 passes on Wednesday night allowing fans to wander the concourses at Rogers Place without benefit of a seat. A thousand more jammed into a beer garden in the entrance hall and watched their first-round game with San Jose on television. Edmonton's downtown arena turned into an ocean of insanity. The clamour started before the puck dropped and rose to ear-splitting over three hours.

"There is no doubt we fed off that energy," Mark Letestu, the Oilers' 32-year-old centre, said Thursday. "During warmups, I took two or three good laps around the ice and had to tell myself to slow down. My heart rate was soaring.

"It was a good experience for everybody, but there is a bit of a lesson there. I think emotions got the best of us."

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Fuelled by excitement, the Oilers jumped out to a 2-0 lead, and then got schooled by the older, more experienced Sharks. San Jose won, 3-2, in overtime. Only 41 saves by Cam Talbot kept Edmonton from receiving a major thumping.

"I think you could argue that coming off that high in the first period led us to not being as sharp as we needed to be for the rest of the game," said Eric Gryba, the Oilers' brawny defenceman. "You could feel the passion in the building, and there is no way you can't be affected.

"There were a bunch of orange maniacs in the stands. It was unbelievable out there."

Pro athletes are so well trained and so elite that it is rare to see them undone by raw emotion. They are so robotic during interviews that it is rarer still to hear them talk about such a common failing. For a moment, at least, they seem human, after all.

The Oilers let victory slip through their fingers in the opening game of their Stanley Cup playoff series, but their emotions got away from them first.

Suddenly, they started taking dumb penalties, which contributed to a sea change in momentum and ultimately, to them frittering away the lead. Their penalty killers got exhausted. The Sharks repeatedly trapped the Oilers in their own end. Edmonton was outshot, 37-9, after the first period, and 44-19 overall.

"We looked like a team on our toes early on, and like a team on our heels later," said Todd McLellan, the Oilers coach. "The Sharks are a savvy, veteran team, and they were able to grab hold of the game and we weren't able to grab it back.

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"That is a lesson learned on our behalf. We will be better next time."

The teams meet in Game 2 in Edmonton on Friday night, before continuing the series in San Jose on Sunday. Only more steely nerves and a much better effort will keep the Oilers from falling into a scary 2-0 hole.

They beat the Sharks the final three times they played in the regular season, finished ahead of them in the Pacific Division and had won nine consecutive games at home.

Suddenly, all of that meant nothing. Eight months of improvements seemed to unravel on Wednesday night. That may be a foreshadowing of bad things to befall the Oilers. Or, it could be a momentary slip caused by the emotion of the moment. To pretend to know is folly.

The Sharks lost 10 of their past 14 games but have shown they will not be an easy mark. It is not a coincidence that they have reached the playoffs in 11 of the past 12 seasons, and played in the Stanley Cup final against the Penguins last year. San Jose's players have more than 1,000 games of playoff experience combined. By comparison, the Oilers have only a fraction. Until Wednesday night, they hadn't played a game that mattered at this time of year since 2006.

The 46 victories this season was their most since 1986-87. Common sense says they will put up more of a fight.

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Their one-hour practice session at Rogers Place on Thursday took on a more serious tone. McLellan was louder than usual, and did more hands-on coaching. He talked to his players about game management, momentum and discipline, all of which went to hell over the last 43 minutes in the series opener. At one point, the team gathered around him on the ice as he scribbled on a blackboard.

Wayne Gretzky, an executive with the Oilers Entertainment Group, watched from the stands. They are a young team and were nervous on Wednesday night, the Great One said.

The Oilers recognize that.

"We are going to play a much better game on Friday night," Letestu said in the dressing room afterward. "Hopefully, we will be better at channelling our emotions.

"We've been through some adversity this season and we've always bounced back well. We know we are a lot better than we showed. That was a pretty poor game on our part."

In the first period on Wednesday, energy and excitement created an illusion that was shattered as the game went on. That's what happens in the Stanley Cup.

"I think as a team we played well in the beginning," said Zack Kassian, Edmonton's big forward. "The crowd helped. Then in the second period, they took over.

"Definitely, in order to win, we have to stay out of the penalty box. I think maybe guys were trying to do a little too much."

Video: Connor McDavid calls NHL playoffs the ‘same old hockey’ (The Canadian Press)
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