EDMONTON — The dichotomy is stark. Like the two towns, white collar Calgary and blue collar Edmonton. Except in hockey it is backwards.
The Calgary Flames lineup, on paper, looks like a quick and easy two points. Filled with a bunch of who’s-its and what’s-his-names drafted in later rounds — or in the case of their captain, not at all. And Edmonton, the World Juniors gang. A bunch of bonus babies all drafted in Round 1.
Edmonton is five years into a rebuild (and that’s being generous) and couldn’t spell W-I-N if you gave them the W and the I.
Calgary has a new general manager in Year 1 of a rebuild, and a head coach that his own team were so unsure of, they’ve let him coach out the final year of his contract. The Flames goalie was run out of Anaheim, and at times already this season, they’ve played without three of their top-four centres from Opening Night due to injury.
Calgary was one point out of first place in the tough Western Conference heading into play Wednesday, while Edmonton is nestled into its annual hibernation den, dead last in the Conference. If they ever get around to putting advertising on NHL uniforms, Lotto 6/49 has dibs on the Oilers.
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It is bad enough being an Oilers fan these days, with your team holding the NHL’s longest playoff drought, a skein that will reach nine years this spring. But to see the Flames rocket past you, just 20 games into their own rebuild…?
It’s got to just rip your blue and orange heart out, doesn’t it?
On Tuesday, the Flames looked absolutely crushed after 40 minutes, trailing the Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks 2-0 and having mustered just eight shots. In the third period Calgary scored three, gave one up, then won the game in a shootout.
Guts? Calgary has more guts than a killing floor. More heart than Valentine’s Day.
Through 20 games of the 2014-15 season, Calgary has forged more character, displayed more courage and earned more league-wide respect than the Oilers have since they drafted Taylor Hall first overall in 2010. Calgary plays like they expect to win. In Edmonton, it’s “How are we going to blow this one?”
The Flames are 5-1-2 in one-goal games, the contests where gamesmanship and will-to-win prevail. Edmonton is 3-4-2 in one-goal games, having now lost their last four contests, each by a goal.
What took Calgary 20 games has taken Edmonton five years and counting. The Oilers still do not have a hot clue how to win, and that is a fact.
“It’s an acquired taste,” said head coach Dallas Eakins. “You go from a team that suffers greatly, that gets out-chanced and out-shot by a ton. Then, you’re in the games, and you start winning some of those games, and you acquire the taste. We’re trying to get there.
“We were the team before last year, getting constantly out-shot, constantly out-chanced. It wasn’t closing a one-goal game, it was trying to get back in a game where you were down three and four (goals). We’re to that point, but it’s got to come now.”
Edmonton has now played 19 games. Its record is 6-11-2. The Oilers have had a five-game losing streak this seasons, and two losing streaks of four games.
Some perspective, courtesy the Sportsnet stats department: In the past five years, the Chicago Blackhawks have lost at least four-consecutive games just three times. The Boston Bruins — two times. The Pittsburgh Penguins — once.
The Oilers have eclipsed those three five-year sample sizes, before their twentieth game this season. Calgary, meanwhile, has put together back to back losses just once this season, and one of those came in a shootout.
On Wednesday night, after another sloppy, ill-goaltended effort against Vancouver, Eakins said it’s up to his “top six forwards and top four defencemen” to get this project over the top. While Flames coach Bob Hartley would be the NHL’s unanimous choice for Coach of the Year honours if the vote were held today, Eakins recently finished 30th in an ESPN poll that ranked the 30 NHL coaches.
“I guess I’ve got nowhere to go but up,” he quipped. With his team having earned one point in 10 games against Western opponents so far this season, and about to open a run of 18 of their next 20 games versus the West, there is one other direction Eakins could go.
It’s been five years now. Is this Oilers team getting any better? Even a little bit?
“The issues are more identifiable. The margins are smaller,” said captain Andrew Ference. “Now, and we’ve talked it to death over the past couple of days, it’s about taking the next step. And that’s the hardest part.”
Look south. Down in Calgary, they’re not making it look hard at all.