It wasn’t close, right from the beginning.
The Edmonton Oilers may have been playing better than terrible of late but on Friday night in Vancouver, on the road in back-to-back games, the young and struggling Oilers did not look good.
The press was immediate. Ryan Kesler won the opening faceoff, one of many on the night, and his line, Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli, so strong of late, pinned the Oilers for more than a minute. They peppered pucks at Edmonton’s Devan Dubnyk, a sustained push that sparked a loud cheer from the Vancouver crowd as the pressure extended to 80 seconds, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jorban Eberle looking fairly helpless.
"Today we brought it right from the start," said Kesler after the game. "It was a complete effort by everybody."
Pressure from the home team was fairly constant through the night – the Canucks put nearly double the pucks at the Oilers net compared with what the visitors managed – but goals took some time to come. The Canucks recorded the first score, a Daniel Sedin power play marker in the second period on a four-on-three, and the second came 2:26 into the third, Zack Kassian deflecting a David Booth shot. Higgins followed about four minutes later, on a great drop pass from Kesler.
The final was 4-0. Roberto Luongo was not called on for much, or often, but delivered big saves when he had to, booking his third shutout of the season and the 65th of his career, which puts him one behind Patrick Roy’s 66, 14th on the all-time list.
The Canucks are rolling. What didn’t click in November crackles in December.
It is the Canucks sixth straight win, further elevating the team back into the picture in the Western Conference. Friday night, however, was merely the appetizer in back-to-back Hockey Night in Canada games for Vancouver, the last-place-in-the-West Oilers the opening act for the Saturday night contest that brings the Boston Bruins.
It is Boston’s first return to Vancouver since that fateful Wednesday in June, 2011, the Canucks on the verge of their first Stanley Cup. More than a hundred thousand citizens – a lot of drunken and rowdy young people among them – crowded West Georgia near Rogers Arena to watch on a big screen and the 4-0 loss was emasculating, the culmination of Vancouver blowing leads of 2-0 and 3-2 in the series before folding at home. As dusk fell on the city, a warm late spring night, the riot ensued.
The Canucks PR machine is in top gear ahead of the Bruins tilt, with two main messages instilled for the players and coaches to espouse: the media brings up the bad blood from the lost Cup final, and it was "a long time ago." Henrik Sedin, Kesler, and coach John Tortorella all followed the exact same script. "You guys do a good job of amping it up," said Kesler to reporters. "It happened a long time ago." Tortorella went with more flair: "Didn't that happen about 20 years ago?"
Vancouver played Boston only once the following season, in January 2012, a game won 4-3 where the full-throttle atmosphere was electric. It was Vancouver’s emotional high point in 2011-12, general manager Mike Gillis later said, the regular-season Saturday matinee something like a Game 8. “Hopped up” is how Dale Weise remembers the tenor among his Canucks teammates.
Knowing how that way-too-early peak turned out, the Canucks have been mum about Boston this time round, with the easy excuse of focusing on Edmonton. And, regardless, the intensity of feeling has faded at least somewhat with more than two years passed. The rivalry, the dislike, between Boston and Vancouver was something of a one-off, an intense Cup final, with no constancy before or after to keep the ferocity fresh.
“Where we are in the standings,” said Daniel Sedin on Thursday after practice, “there is no way we are looking ahead to Boston. It’s not like we’re No. 1 in the league. We need the two points.”
From the last time they played, the two teams’ paths have been somewhat divergent. The Canucks have lost in the first round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons, while Boston lost in the first round in 2012 and returned to the Cup final last season.
Both teams come in hot: Boston in first place in the weaker Eastern Conference, having won four games and 8-2 in their last 10, while Vancouver has its perfect December unfolding.
Goals have been a question for Vancouver this year – and there could have been more on Friday night against an Oilers team tired after a loss at back home in Edmonton against Boston Thursday night. A key, again, was Vancouver’s ability to keep pucks out of its net that, even if Edmonton’s attack was mostly lame. The Canucks, since the start of November, have held teams to two goals or fewer in regulation play in 16 of 19 games. In December, it is six goals in six games, including two shutouts.
For Edmonton, the loss is yet another stumble in a lost season, one where the team was supposed to compete for a playoff spot and instead has been an unmitigated disaster. The Oilers on Friday night were often at their worst, confused, unable to compete against their opponent. It recalls the line from Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens in October, when he said the Oilers sometimes play “a little bit like a junior team.”
A pretty harsh observation. But one that is not entirely off, and Edmonton definitely does not look like it is about to, next year, or the year after, become a Pittsburgh or Chicago, teams before it that were loaded with young stars and succeeded. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakopov might have all gone No. 1 but it does not feel like the three are quite the same quality of other No. 1s such as Chicago’s Patrick Kane.
Against Vancouver, the Oilers didn’t register their first shot of the game until 6:50 in and in the second period, it was the same, taking 6:31 for their first shot. There were scoring chances, sure, such as David Perron on a two-on-one when Luongo came up with a big glove save, or at the end of the second, when defenceman Jeff Petry couldn’t bang in a pass from Taylor Hall – but all in Edmonton was erratic at best.
Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins was downcast after the game, a rookie National Hockey League coach going through a rough introduction to the top level of hockey. "We just couldn't ever get going," said Eakins.
"It's hard to get a shot on net in your own zone."
Edmonton’s situation is somewhat brighter of late, even with back-to-back losses to Boston on Thursday and then Vancouver, with an 8-4-1 record in their last 13 after opening 4-15-2. The Oilers maintain their hold on last place in the West.
The team, looking at other teams that were awful and rebuilt on the strength of top draft picks, should be further along. Taylor Hall was picked No. 1 in 2010, the first of three consecutive No. 1 picks, and when the Oilers miss the playoffs this year, which is all but certain, it will be the fourth consecutive spring out of the postseason for Hall.
Pittsburgh missed the playoffs twice, after their first No. 1 pick (Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003), and then made the playoffs, then the finals, which they lost to Detroit, before beating Detroit to life the Cup.
Chicago’s story is much the same. Jonathan Toews went No. 3 in 2006, and Patrick Kane went No. 1 in 2007. Chicago missed the playoffs in 2007 and 2008, and then made the conference finals in 2009 and won their first Cup in 2010.
Edmonton, after seven seasons out of the playoffs, continues to wait. And it could still be a long time, if ever, that the new generation of Oilers rises.