As I noted in the preview today, it's been a long time coming for the Jackets to get to opening night. 159 days, in fact. Given the way the season finished, and the week off at the end of camp, it's not surprising that the team is ready to go. "It was a good feeling," Mark Letestu said. "And we want that feeling back."
Maybe Dalton Prout put it best when I asked him how excited he was to play tonight: "On a scale of one to ten, maybe 100."
It's clear that the off-season couldn't come to an end soon enough for this group of players that go ever so close to the post-season last spring. "I'm very excited," Matt Calvert said. "Obviously we've been talking about last year all camp, and it's a bright spot for the organization. But, it's a new year. We can take what we can from last year. What it gave us is that we know this group can do it. It's a new season tonight, and we're going to get on a roll here at the start."
Ironically, with the lockout last season taking up three months of the season (and of course robbing teams of any kind of meaningful training camp), it seems the players have been agonizing over this "normal" camp, and what has technically been their shortest non-playoff off-season in team history. "I'm very anxious," Ryan Johansen told me. "It seems like we've been here for months and months, and we haven't started yet. We're really excited to get it going. We've been talking through all of camp about how ready to go we are, and we just have to go out and do it now."
The important thing for the team will be to make sure that they don't let the emotions get the best of them. "You could tell in the morning skate, we were missing some passes and some plays we normally make," Letestu said. "It's not from being sloppy, it's from being amped up. Everybody's excited and talking about how there was some missed sleep last night just thinking about it."
Prout was more succinct. "You have to keep it in check," he said. "You have to remember that it's a hockey game that you need to win. Whether it's game one or game 82, they're all just as important. You have to look at the big picture: these are two points that we need to start the season off right."
The man with, perhaps, the most to say on the topic, however, is head coach Todd Richards. "Sometimes in these games I think you can get so wound up that the brain shuts off and you start doing some uncharacteristic or stupid things on the ice," he said. "That's what we have to avoid."
One of the biggest question marks in terms of the club's preparedness may stem from the fact that they played their last exhibition game over a week ago. It doesn't seem, however, that the team is worried about rust so much as they're just ready to get back out there and hit somebody in a different sweater for a change. "You get a taste for it in preseason games," Johansen said, "and you're itching that much more for the season to start."
On the notion of not having played a game for a week, Letestu tried to clarify. "I don't know if it's been rough," he said. "It sure makes you anxious. It's three days of the season that've gone by and we haven't been able to be a part of it. Coming in and watching the highlights, guys want to get at it, especially with the way we finished last year."
Coach Richards likes where the team is right now, despite the time off. "I liked our practices leading up to the game tonight," the coach said. "We had good intensity and good energy. My concern right now is the first 20 minutes and being focused, not getting too caught up in the emotion of the moment, where it becomes a bit of a distraction from how we want to play the game. My gut tells me that they're ready to pounce, but we'll see."
One thing is for sure: the team remembers the energy of the crowd from last season's final game back in April, and they're fulling expecting it to be awesome again tonight. Richards knows it can be a lift for the team, but cautions that they have to harness it and channel it while staying within themselves. "We have to channel the energy that's going to be in the building tonight," he said. "We have to channel the excitement and everything around it. But, it can't cross a line where we're undisciplined, uncharacteristic, taking bad penalties, and having bad turnovers because our brains aren't up to speed because of the emotions taking over."
"We'll try to ride the emotions of the crowd," Letestu said, "and hopefully they're as charged up as we are."