Johnson: Is this the year the Oilers pass the Flames?
Edmonton hasn’t had the jump on Calgary since 2002-2003 season
Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates his game tying goal in the dying seconds against the Los Angeles Kings at Rexall Place on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.
Photograph by: Shaughn Butts, Edmonton Journal
Is this, finally, the year? The day of reckoning this town has secretly dreaded, knew had to arrive someday, deep in its most insecure places. Is that the northern wolf we hear clawing frantically at the door?
If so, those nutty Mayans were right. Guilty, only, of being off by a few months.
The end of the world as we know it.
A decade, all the way back to 2002-2003, has passed since the Edmonton Oilers finished with more points in the National Hockey League standings than the Calgary Flames.
So very long ago, do you think?
Well, back then, Jussi (Rebound) Markkanen and Tommy Salo were the tandem tending twine for Edmonton. Current Oilers Ryan Smyth and Shawn Horcoff were around in that era, believe it or not, and are actually old enough to recount ancient history.
Ales Hemsky was an apple-cheeked rookie, the ever-quotable MacT was behind the bench and the building just off Wayne Gretzky Drive still went by Skyreach Centre.
That year, Miikka Kiprusoff continued to loiter without intent in San Jose as a backup to Evgeni Nabokov, going 5-14 with an unprepossessing 3.25 GAA. The acidic Darryl Sutter was gonged in the Silicon Valley after a poor start and then hired by the Flames to replace the ousted Greg Gilbert just before New Year’s, revitalizing a franchise in the process.
So yes, it was a while ago. Or at least, sure seems that way.
In the intervening seasons, even as things began to erode here, as the once seemingly-omnipotent Sutter regime cracked and broke, at least the local citizenry had provincial superiority to cling to in otherwise troubled times.
“Yeah,” you’d hear folks hereabouts sputter self-righteously, “but at least we’re not as bad as, as ... the Oilers!?”
Three years orphaned from the playoffs? Pah! Child’s play! Edmonton’s run on ineptitude is double that!
Why, even when the Oil went on one of those wildly improbable one-offs all the way to the 2006 Stanley Cup finals (much as Calgary had only two seasons before), the Flames had ’em over the 82 regular-season-game haul, by eight points, topping the division.
Sanity, naturally, was quickly restored.
But even as the wisecracks about that out-of-date City of Champions relic signage outside the Edmonton city limits continued unabated, the Oilers, out of blind luck more than astute planning, were stockpiling more diamonds than you’ll find in the most potent of Botswanan mines in South Africa.
Jordan Eberle in 2008. Taylor Hall in 2010. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011. Dazzling, uncut gems. Just waiting for the right polish, a little refinement.
And now, having added yet another No. 1, Nail Yakupov, along with the de facto most-sought-after free agent on the market last summer, Wisconsin defenceman Justin Schultz, more and more people firmly believe the tide has shifted, at least within the provincial borders.
Maybe, in the not too distant future, far, far outside them, as well.
Why, in his pre-season power rankings Adrian Dater of SI.com had the audacity to pick the Oilers third, OVERALL, with the Flames a distant, defeated 24th. That seems a bit of a stretch, given the thinness on the Edmonton blueline and the lack of a game-swiping goaltender.
Still, head-to-head, Calgary is universally regarded as the group caught in the arthritic throes of decline, only now in the early stages of trying to reinvent itself; Edmonton, a team beginning to take shape and most definitely on the rise.
Worse, the Oilers play that brand of hockey that Calgary’s new headmaster Bob Hartley daydreams of from his group. With style, speed and sass. Panache and push. The Flames have injected Sven Baertschi on the big team now, and have some interesting kids on the way, but Edmonton’s young turks are miles ahead in the development department.
At some point, and soon, odds are all that potential they’ve amassed will translate into production.
So with the first meeting of the shortened season between the despised rivals set for Saturday night at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Hockey Night in Canada coast-to-coast, no less, we’ll get some preliminary indications of what’s in store over the next 45 games.
Calgary has stumbled out of the gate, 0-2-1, as it adjusts to Hartley’s ways, while the Oilers’ amazing comeback with 4.7 seconds left in regulation to win in OT has them at 2-1, and three points ahead of the Flames.
So is this, finally, the year? Have we at least reached the day of reckoning this town has secretly feared? Were the Mayans actually right, if off a little in the actual timing?
Are Hall, Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins and the rest ready at last to end a decade of provincial regular-season subservience?
And when they push, as they’ve shown every intention of doing to start this season, how hard will the Flames push back?
Yes, that is the northern wolf clawing frantically at the door. And if it somehow gets in, heaven only knows how long it’ll take to shoo the damn thing out.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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