VANCOUVER – The Edmonton Oilers succeeded in living up to some of their early-season hype Sunday.
Ales Hemsky tied the game in the third period and added the shootout winner as the Oilers opened their season with a 3-2 comeback victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
Sam Gagner also scored in the shootout for the Oilers, who were making their debut in the lockout-shortened season, while Devan Dubnyk stopped both Vancouver attempts.
“We have an abundance of offensively-skilled players, but shooting penalty shots is a whole different ball game,” said Ralph Krueger, who picked up a win in his first game as an NHL head coach. “And, I think the way Gagner and Hemsky dealt with that tonight was outstanding.”
The young, offensively-gifted Oilers have entered the season with high expectations, with many observers expecting them to take a strong run at making the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Edmonton has not qualified for the post-season since losing to Carolina in the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
Krueger, who served as an assistant last season when the Oilers finished 29th overall, said the club is learning how to finish games and has a much different “swagger.” It began to show itself Sunday as the Oilers overcame a slow start.
The club’s penalty-killers played a key role as the Oilers blanked the Canucks on five power-play opportunities while convert one of four.
“The penalty killing was outstanding, and the most important penalty killer is always your goaltender,” said Krueger. “(Dubnyk) just showed so much calm, (stayed) well-positioned the whole time, and our penalty killing bought us the time.”
The Canucks, meanwhile, blew a 2-0 lead and have now suffered back-to-back losses after falling 7-3 to Anaheim at home on Saturday night.
Jordan Eberle had the other goal in regulation for Edmonton, while Alex Edler and Zack Kassian scored for Vancouver.
After struggling early, Edmonton showed glimpses of its potential offensively from the dozen first-round picks that now dot the roster.
“It showed a lot of the character we have in the locker-room,” Oilers captain Shawn Horcoff said of the comeback. “It shows our belief. It showed our depth. They were a little tired, obviously, coming off Saturday night, and we were able to take it to them in the third. It was nice to get a win.”
Roberto Luongo, who was expected to be traded after being displaced as Vancouver’s starter by Cory Schneider in last spring’s playoffs, made his second straight appearance in the young season and finished with 30 saves.
Dubnyk finished with 27 to get the win.
Despite the loss, Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault was happy with his club’s effort against a well rested Oilers squad.
“We didn’t have much left in the tank halfway through the third period, but we tried to battle through,” said Vigneault.
Trailing 2-0 late in the second, Eberle got the Oilers on the board by roofing a backhander past Luongo from a sharp angle with just four seconds left in the period.
Edmonton pressed for the tie in the third period, with Hemsky beating Luongo on a weak shot from the wing on the power play at 14:05.
The goal came after Andrew Ebbett took a penalty for tripping Oilers rookie Nail Yakupov, who was making his NHL debut.
The Oilers had 12 players in the AHL or in Europe during the lockout, while only four Canucks played overseas during the labour dispute. Horcoff said the game-readiness made a difference against Vancouver.
“I think it helped a lot, maybe, after the first period,” said Horcoff. “We came out a little bit flat, but I thought as the game wore on, we got better, and it didn’t take us too long to adapt.”
But Krueger offered a different view.
“I haven’t noticed a big difference, which is surprising if you see (veterans) Horcoff and (Ryan Smyth) carry all those penalties (on penalty-kills) tonight without having played much hockey,” said Krueger. “I think the difference whether you’ve played a lot will show up in a few weeks.”
Notes: Oilers defenceman Justin Schultz, a highly-coveted free agent signing, also played his first NHL game. … Vancouver defencemen Jim Vandermeer, Cam Barker and Andrew Alberts were scratched for the second straight game. … Edmonton bench boss Ralph Krueger made his debut as an NHL head coach. … Krueger scratched former Canucks winger Darcy Hordichuk, along with winger Magnus Paajarvi and defenceman Mark Fistric. … The Canucks recorded their 410th consecutive sellout. …. Edmonton goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is recovering from off-season hip injury.