What did you make of the action stateside?
Here’s our five takeaways from the weekend’s games:
BIG BEN ISN’T BACK TO HIS BEST
Even though Ben Roethlisberger was healthy enough to play, it’s worth wondering if Pittsburgh would have been better of playing back-up QB Landry Jones again. Roethlisberger was extremely rusty in his return from a knee injury and the offence sputtered out with a hugely underwhelming performance in the 21-14 defeat to Baltimore.
AJAYI NOT JUST A FLASH IN THE PAN
Miami’s running back Jay Ajayi didn’t eclipse 200 rushing yards for the third straight game, but he still compiled 111 yards on 24 carries. RBs, more than any other position, shine bright for a stretch before burning out, but after another impressive showing, Ajayi put to rest any scepticism he’s a one (or two) hit wonder. Miami have someone they can lean on.
MICHAEL THOMAS HAS ARRIVED
Drew Brees is pretty spoiled for weapons in New Orleans, but a rookie has emerged as his new favourite target. In the win over San Francisco, wide receiver Michael Thomas grabbed five receptions for 73 yards and two touchdowns, including a jaw-dropping score that showed he can reel in almost any pass thrown his way. Just what the Saints need, more firepower.
PACKERS ARE A TEASE
Just when it seems like Aaron Rodgers’ famous spelling of the word ‘relax’ is about to ring true, Green Bay go and drop another game. While their defence hasn’t helped by allowing at least 31 points the past two weeks, Rodgers and Co once again struggled in the loss to Indianapolis, finding little rhythm until the fourth quarter in a comeback attempt that fell short.
SMALL MARGIN OF ERROR FOR MINN
It’s not hard to figure out why the Vikings have dropped three straight following a flawless 5-0 start to the season. Because of their offensive limitations, the defence has to be nearly perfect and it just hasn’t been as other-worldly as it was through the first five games. A more up-tempo approach under Pat Shurmur may or may not help.
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When you land in Edmonton, it doesn’t take long to realise what the Oilers mean.
I was in Edmonton for a week covering the women’s World Cup in 2015. Waiting for your bags at the airport, reminders are everywhere. Nods to a certain Wayne Gretzky and the glories of yesteryear give an immediate sense of just how important ice hockey is in those parts.
In the summer, it’s quite sleepy, yet quaint. There’s enough buzz about town to keep you occupied in the evening. Lovely people. Very welcoming. Not much else to report.
When winter rolls in, however, it can’t be much fun. Temperatures plunge way below zero. The cold is bitter and relentless. Yet as the nights become longer, there is a permanent glow in the beautiful new Rogers Place arena following an extraordinary start to the NHL season.
The team and its fans, who have spent a decade out of the play-offs – the worst run in hockey – are on the crest of a wave following seven wins from their first eight matches. Stanley Cup glory was last tasted 26 long years ago. They came close in 2006, falling at the final hurdle to the Carolina Hurricanes. The Oilers haven’t been to the postseason since.
Hope abounds in this campaign, though, thanks in no small part to the wonderkid dubbed ‘McJesus’. Connor McDavid is just 19, the youngest captain in NHL history and producing performances Gretzky, who has a statue of himself holding up the biggest trophy in sport outside their new stadium, would be proud of.
In their seven wins the #Oilers have outscored opponents 27-11 and outhit them 154-139. Skill and size. Decent combo.— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) October 29, 2016
Averaging around a point per game, fellow upstarts like Toronto’s Auston Matthews and Winnipeg ace Patrik Laine know they’re in serious company. He dished two assists in the 4-1 thrashing of Washington last Wednesday, a seismic performance to put the seal on Edmonton’s best record in the first seven games of the season since 1985-86.
And guess who nabbed the winner on Friday night against the Vancouver Canucks? It’s early days but excitement is already building.
“You can definitely sense they’re expecting a lot out of us this year,” said Ontario native McDavid whose speed around the ice is blowing both rivals and pundits away. “But that’s good, we’re expecting even more out of ourselves. We want to remake the Oilers name.”
Legend Gretzky added: “At the end of the day he loves playing the game. “I’m really impressed with how mature he is. He is mature beyond his years and it’s wonderful for the game.”
There is, however, more to the resurgence than McDavid’s brilliance. A huge front office reshuffle instigated by general manager Peter Chiarelli following his arrival last year has reinvigorated a franchise which had been losing its way more often than not.
There’s a definite Chicago Cubs feel about the Oilers – something which shouldn’t surprise anyone considering Chiarelli knows Wrigley Field miracle worker Theo Epstein well following their spells in Boston with the Bruins and Red Sox respectively.
Yet, while one Canadian powerhouse looks to roll back the years, another is also joining the party. The Montreal Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup more times than any other franchise. The famous old trophy has been lifted an incredible 24 times. You have to travel all the way back to 1993 for the last one though.
As in Edmonton, Montreal have flown out of the blocks, creating history along the way. Their sixth win on the spin last Thursday over Tampa saw them become the first ever NHL team to win at least seven of its first eight games three years in a row.
The Canadiens are goal hungry while their defence is playing above themselves, but a lot rests on outstanding keeper Carey Price’s shoulders.
There’s a long way to go. Yet, without doubt, the sleeping giants are awake and up for a fight.