Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 22, 2017

A Tale Of Two NHL Cities

If one glanced quickly at the NHL standings on this weekend before the All-Star break, the Edmonton Oilers and Boston Bruins appeared to be in a similar position in their respective conferences. The Oilers sit in third place in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division, while the Bruins occupy the third spot in the East’s Atlantic Division. The first six playoff spots in both East and West are awarded to the top three squads in the two divisions that comprise the conference, with the final two Wild Card slots going to the franchises with the best records of those remaining, irrespective of their division.

So with the season past its halfway point that quick glance would lead one to believe that for the moment at least, both Edmonton and Boston have a grip on a playoff spot. Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. In fact these two similarly positioned teams are headed in opposite directions. One fan base is filled with hope about what might take place not just this season but for years to come; while the other faces the virtual certainty of upheaval and feels only mounting despair.

The Edmonton Oilers squeezed into the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs as the eighth and last seed in the West, and then went on an improbable run that didn’t end until Game 7 of the Finals, when the Oilers finally fell to the Carolina Hurricanes. Edmonton hasn’t been back to the playoffs since, and has only posted a pair of winning records in the intervening years. The glory years for fans in the windswept Alberta prairies ended more than a quarter century ago, when the Oilers beat the Bruins to win the 1990 Stanley Cup, the team’s fifth in seven years and the only one captured without the help of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky was just seventeen when he signed with the Oilers, then a member of the soon to be disbanded World Hockey Association. Edmonton was one of four WHA franchises folded into the NHL the following season, and Gretzky was an instant star, winning the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player in his rookie year. All these years later, another young center with blazing speed and an accurate shot has fans of the Oilers dreaming of a new dynasty.

Connor McDavid, who celebrated his twentieth birthday earlier this month, has been called the “Next One” in an obvious reference to Gretzky since his early teenage years. Edmonton made McDavid the first pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, though the teenager couldn’t hide his disappointment when the Oilers won the draft lottery and thus the right to his services. His first season was interrupted by a broken clavicle, but McDavid still tallied 48 points in just 45 games.

The Oilers made him the youngest captain in NHL history prior to this season, and McDavid no longer seems to least bit disappointed to be wearing an orange and blue sweater. He leads the league with 56 points through 49 games. In Edmonton’s last game, a 7-3 win over Calgary on Saturday, McDavid notched his sixteenth goal of the season by taking a centering pass and cutting through two Flames defenders before snapping a wrist shot over the right shoulder of goaltender Brian Elliot.

With McDavid leading the way, the Oilers are 7-2-1 over the last ten games. Only the Washington Capitals have a better record during the same period. With sixty points Edmonton is tied with San Jose in the Pacific Division, though the Sharks are awarded second place for having two games in hand. Both squads are only a point behind division leading Anaheim. Just as important the Oilers have a nine point edge on fourth place Calgary. In short, barring an unlikely collapse down the stretch, Edmonton is headed for a long-awaited return to the postseason and if the team keeps playing the way it has of late, its seeding should only improve.

McDavid’s ability to dominate the ice has been likened to that of the great Boston defenseman Bobby Orr, who happens to be the young player’s agent. Orr won the first of his two Stanley Cups with the Bruins in 1970, when he was just twenty-two. The second followed two years later. After that Bruins fans waited for nearly four decades, until at last the Cup returned to Boston in 2011. That team was coached by Claude Julien, who took Boston back to the finals two seasons later.

Julien is now in his tenth season behind the Boston bench, making him the longest tenured head coach in the NHL. Of his more than 500 career wins as a head coach, 416 to date have come in Boston, giving him the franchise record. Julien is a very good coach who has often managed to coax more than should be expected out of his roster, with the Bruins front office not always known for its acumen in making personnel moves.

But the old adage still applies; one can’t fire the team when things go bad. In Boston, where the TD Garden was dark during the last two postseasons, memories of those Stanley Cup Finals are fading just as quickly as things are going bad, and it’s now an open question how many more chances Julien will have to add to his franchise wins record.

With fifty-two points the Bruins grip on third place in their division is tenuous. Fourth place Toronto is only a point back, and has a whopping six games in hand. The Maple Leafs are followed by the Panthers, Red Wings and Sabres. Those three teams are two, three and four points adrift, with two, three and four games in hand respectively. The Bruins may be in third place, but they could just as easily be in seventh. Should Boston slip, the current standings also show that a Wild Card spot is by no means guaranteed.

Boston has won only three times in the last ten games, and the recent schedule has been particularly ugly. Sunday the Bruins played the Penguins close for two periods, but the roof fell in during the third as Pittsburgh skated off with a 5-1 victory. Two days earlier Boston appeared headed for overtime until Marian Hossa netted the game winner for Chicago with less than two minutes to play. Prior to that Boston blew a 4-1 lead against Detroit and was shutout at home by the Islanders, a team with the third worst road record in the league.

The Oilers and Bruins, two teams that at first glance look to be in similar position. But out on the high Canadian prairie the Oilers and their young star are surging, and fans are filled with hope not felt since the Great One first took to the Edmonton ice. In Boston the mood is very different. As another season slips away, fans wait for the axe to fall, and dread the uncertainty and doubt that will inevitably follow.  One city looks forward to a spring of hope while another languishes in a winter of despair.

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  1. […] in another season in which the TD Garden lights will almost certainly be turned out early. As noted here, the inevitable consequence of such sustained mediocrity is the dismissal of the man behind the […]


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