It was like they played Hockey Night in Canada in some kind of alternate universe on Saturday night. A place you’ve been a thousand times before, but yet a unique scenario at the same time.
The Detroit Red Wings, playing out the string in early March, stumbling through Alberta against a couple of red-hot, playoff contenders in Calgary and Edmonton. The Oilers, toying with a Red Wings club that hung around and hung around. The red team staying just close enough to keep the blue team trying; the blue team able to keep a safe margin, seemingly getting that next goal every time the red team restored a one-goal margin.
For most of a quarter century Detroit—who last missed the playoffs in the spring of 1990—25 post-season tournaments ago—has always been in a robotic points collection mode by March 2. The trade deadline has passed, they’ve usually beefed up with some high-priced talent, and grabbing four points in a province inhabited by sellers was simply second nature.
From about 1995 to 2009, Detroit laid Alberta lower than a $25 barrel of oil. But if sport is one thing it is cyclical, and here in 2017, the Red Wings are finally destined to miss the playoffs. After a 3-2 overtime loss Friday in Calgary, Detroit was beaten 4-3 in Edmonton on Saturday, outshot 38-25 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate.
"The Detroit Red Wings are a really good hockey team. You can see the future is over there," said Edmonton’s Pat Maroon, the author of the game-winning goal. He was reciting almost to the word a line players like Tomas Holmstrom and Brendan Shanahan used to say about the young, rebuilding Oilers for all those futile years. "They’re a good organization, and they’re still in the mix. They’re young, fast, well coached…"
For how many years of Nicklas Lidstrom’s fabulous Hall of Fame, 20-year career did the Red Wings start every game knowing they had the undisputed, best player on the ice? So dominant was Lidstrom—so skillfully did he control the tempo of the game during his 27 minutes of ice time—his general manager, Ken Holland, often joked he should retire when Lidstron did, lest we find out how big a part of Holland’s managerial skill set Lidstrom truly was.
Well, today the Red Wings look across at Connor McDavid to answer the question of which team has the best player. McDavid opened the scoring when he took one Detroit defender wide, and blew up the angle of his partner with his unbelievable speed, just 1:41 into a game Detroit would never lead.
Those defencemen? Their names are no longer Lidstrom, Fetisov, Chelios or Murphy.
"He’s one of a kind, but we all know that," the 36-year-old Henrik Zetterberg said of McDavid, who is barely more than half his age at 20.
"His skill, when he has that speed, too. It’s not many who have that.
"It’s tough to play from behind against this team," Zetterberg continued. "They’re really skilled when they get their odd-man rushes…"
It’s uncanny for a reporter who recorded nearly identical quotes in the Edmonton dressing room for all those seasons, directed at a Detroit team that was just a better outfit, plain and simple.
A dozen players on the Oilers roster Saturday were not even born when Detroit last missed the post-season. Such ancient history was that edition of the Winged Wheel, the roster contained names like Borje Salming, Jim Nill and Gerard Gallant.
Since then, the Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups and played in 54 separate series. The Oilers actually won their final Stanley Cup in 1990, but while the Wings were making the playoffs 25 straight times Edmonton missed the dance altogether in 16 different springs.
"The past is the past," began Jordan Eberle, who also scored. "But I think we’ve earned the right to be confident, the way we’ve played and where we are in the standings. You come into games like this—any opponent is a good opponent in this league—and we feel like, if we play the way we can, we can beat any team in this league. And dictate the play.
"Even when they scored to make it 1-1, in the past we would kind of deflate a bit. (Now) you can feel the bench be like, ‘We’re going to get another one, and then another one.’ And we did that. That’s maybe the difference from years past."
It had to change. It always does.
But it doesn’t mean this won’t take some getting used to.