Edmonton Oilers’ Nail Yakupov, left, of Russia, is checked by Vancouver Canucks’ Chris Tanev during the first period of an NHL game in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday January 20, 2013.
Photograph by: DARRYL DYCK, THE CANADIAN PRESS
VANCOUVER - For the purposes of the David vs. Goliath scenario that, briefly, looked to be a likely opening-night late game for Hockey Night in Canada, the Vancouver Canucks were to play the role of the giant and the Edmonton Oilers the young upstart.
If you didn’t look too closely -- just accepted the Canucks’ Presidents’ Trophies of the past two seasons as evidence of their bigness, and the Oilers’ plethora of young high draft picks as evidence of their potential to slay the ogre -- the metaphor wasn’t totally bogus.
It’s only when seen in person that the analogy begins to break down.
Goliath, for instance, is two fourth lines over the usual allotment, and temporarily (they hope) a little less than fearsome. David, meanwhile, having not yet proved his courage or his aim, has a bagful of prime rocks for ammunition, but hasn’t quite got the knack of slinging them with any consistency.
In the end, the meeting didn’t happen Saturday but was put off for a day while the Canucks entertained, unintentionally and literally, the Anaheim Ducks.
And when it did, it was an overtime 2-2 tie that got decided in the shootout, and the result -- 3-2 for the Oilers -- was probably about what ought to have happened to a Goliath that has lost a step against a David with as much raw skill as any team in the league.
“I think what you’re seeing is we have more depth, we have more maturity,” said said Oiler coach Ralph Krueger, whose Swiss national teams were the antithesis of the freewheeling, abundantly skilled team he’s got to work with in Edmonton.
“And you know, we were a really competitive team last year -- it was crazy, we were probably one of the best 29th-place teams ever. I don’t remember too many games that were boring.
“We just didn’t know how to finish games, and it’s something we’ve been working on. And it’s good for them that they were able to learn that today, how to finish. We know we still have a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of learning curves, but there’s a completely different energy, different swagger in the room.”
The Canucks were up 2-0 on a team that, a year ago, probably would have let the score balloon from there. This one didn’t. Devan Dubnyk was tough when he had to be in the Oiler net, and the Canucks didn’t take advantage of a string of power play chances.
Once it got to a shootout, even as well as Roberto Luongo had played, the Canucks didn’t look as though they had the energy to see it through to the end.
Vancouver was 5-1 against the Oilers last year, when the Canucks were No. 1 in the regular season to Edmonton’s 29th.
So there was always that gap, and one game doesn’t mean it’s even close to being bridged. But more than that, these two franchises have almost never been good at the same time. They have missed each other’s prime years, languishing near the bottom while the other flourished, and vice versa.
It’s only now, with the Canucks still holding onto their regular-season primacy -- until someone takes it away -- and the Oilers having endured the worst years of their existence to acquire the draft picks that might resurrect their fortunes, that the two teams might be on a collision course.
Maybe later, maybe sooner. But they’re trending in different directions, that much is for sure.
“It took us probably 25 minutes to feel out the game, but five-on-five I thought we were kind of all over them. We just took too many penalties,” said Jordan Eberle, who at the moment is the best of the young Oilers, though the three consecutive No. 1 overall picks, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, all were judged to have better upsides.
Eberle’s late second-period goal -- a thing of beauty, going wide around Alex Edler and lifting a wicked backhand into about six square inches of space inside the junction of post and crossbar over Luongo’s left shoulder -- was the inspiration his team needed to begin the road back. And the Oilers finished it in the shootout with goals on multi-layered dekes by Sam Gagner and Ales Hemsky that Luongo couldn’t stay with.
“Every game against a division rival is a four-point game,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “I mean, every point is going to matter even more this year.
“I think we’re confident that we can play with any team in the league. We have the depth to do it now, and we made some big pickups in the offseason, and it’s going to pay off for us.
“I think as a team gets older, your defensive game gets stronger, and you don’t give up as much. I think as we play more together, that’s what’s going to happen for us.”
If there’s one thing to take from the Canucks’ weekend, besides the “loser point” Sunday, it’s the need to arrest a shaky start before it becomes a genuine slide.
“They’ve got a good team over there, so for us, where we are, it was a good character win,” Eberle said. “Last year, it seemed like those one-goal games were Kryptonite for us. We were losing a lot of them, and usually in the third period, so to come back in the third and win it, shows some character on our part.
“But at the end of the day, it’s one game.”
One missed step by Goliath. One pebble bounced off the ogre’s forehead by David. One loss by the Presidents’ Trophy winner, one win for a team that has missed the playoffs six years in a row.
No big deal? Probably not.
The gap was comfortably wide eight months ago.
Still, the proving never stops.
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