It's a wonderful time of year to be a hockey fan. The sun is shining, the bluebirds are singing, and the best teams in the league are knocking each other's faces in in the quest for Lord Stanley's holy grail. Yet I find myself ill at ease.
It's an odd sort of bitterness, this. I have no specific quarrel with these five teams, right? Every team remaining in the Stanley Cup playoffs has enjoyed at least one playoff series with the Oilers, and every team remaining has lost that series. The Sharks in 2006, of course, and the others back in the dynasty days when the hockey gods roamed the Earth (okay, the Blackhawks got us in 1992 but didn't we all agree that none of the seasons from 1991 to 1997 ever happened?).
Perhaps it is that ring of familiarity. There are no properly loathsome teams left in the running, now that the Canucks are gone, so there is nobody I can cheer against with every fibre of my being. There are just five teams left, soon to be reduced to four. Only one of them is a 1990s-expansion Bettman team, and three of them are actually Original Six. So rather than focusing my will on hoping that a team of pure evil is sent back to the void from whence it came, I'm forced to actually evaluate the remaining teams based on logical, sensible criteria.
If you've been reading long enough, you'll know that when I have to get logical and sensible bad things happen.
I gaze at the five teams remaining in the playoffs and I feel the bile surging in my throat. Why are they there while the Oilers stay at home? What have they got that we don't, besides goaltending, offense, defense, coaching, and competent management? Every bullrush to the net by Dustin Byfuglien is like a dagger of ice straight into my heart as I remember the loping stride and casual power of our own impregnable Dustin. Every time Tuukka Rask makes another fine save, I compare him to our young goaltenders and I shake my head. And seeing Marc-Andre Bergeron ripping slapshots and turning the puck over like the old days practically sends me into a retro aneurysm.
Every barnburner of a game, every terrific hard-fought period, and every consummate display of individual or team skill reaches into my brain, grabs the Oilers fan hiding behind the laundry basket, and shakes him by the lapels. Why not us?
Take the Montreal Canadiens. What could be more Edmonton Oilers than the Montreal Canadiens? They currently employ ex-Oilers Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, and Marc-Andre Bergeron (pictured above in his natural habitat). They kinda employ our beloved ex-enforcer/radio host Georges Laraque, or at least pay him while asking him to stay away from the rest of the team, which is a lot like Derek's arrangement with me. They're a storied, oft-successful team of remarkably short players who have a storied history but have recently fallen on hard times. The Canadiens have no captain, the Oilers might as well have no captain. They're exactly like us, right down to the look of primal terror on Jaroslav Halak's face every time Bergeron tries to hit a guy in front of the net.
And, of course, every time a Montreal player manages to lace up his skates all by himself, the Eastern Conference media flabbers its gast that a mere eighth seed could achieve so much as if this was the most remarkable thing to happen in the history of hockey. "This is easily the greatest underdog story in, like, four years!" Compare this to the Oilers' 2006 playoff run, which everybody east of Lloydminster has already forgotten about (although, to be fair, who'd want to remember a team that lost to the Carolina Hurricanes?) Can you blame me for my grumpiness? The Canadiens are like a visitation from my past, except they're wearing the wrong colours and they have Andrei Markov, who plays like Chris Pronger if Pronger weren't a complete asshole.
So, do I cheer for Boston or Philadelphia? Hardly. Philadelphia actually has Chris Pronger, or at least a dessicated husk which has a 'Pronger' name bar and isn't useful for much besides stomping on guys. They also have Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Simon Gagne: the sort of silky-smooth two-way players the Oilers used to find growing on trees. They have Danny Syvret, who actually was an Oiler as well as the reason we got rare bright spot Ryan
Smyth Potulny. They have Blair Betts, who most of the Oilogosphere was shouting to be made an Oiler last summer when he was a free agent and willing to sign for a canned of refried beans. They're a stupidly talented, likeable team apart from the Pronger thing, and they have a question mark in goal as well as a few defensemen who should probably be selling used cars. How is that not a description of the Oilers? Aside from the talented part, I mean.
Meanwhile, when I watch Boston in the playoffs, all I can think of is the lights going out at the Garden and Petr Klima ending the longest game in NHL history. These are nice memories, but constant reminders that we used to be good aren't a very relaxing way to spend an evening.
Okay, so we look at the Western Conference and the San Jose Sharks. This is okay. Not a single ex-Oiler on the roster. Nice. Well, there's Dwight Helminen, who we drafted and traded to the Rangers for... I can't even remember what we traded him for, but it can't have been very good so I'm not going to worry about it. The whole Bettman expansion thing stinks to high heaven but I can almost forgive that. They have an aging, enigmatic, injury-prone Russian goaltender? That sends chills of creeping familiarity down my spine but Evgeni Nabokov is technically a Kazakh so we may still be good. Looking at that time almost lulls me into a sense of complacency.
Still, some of those names look familiar. "Thornton"? "Marleau"? I know them. I have encountered them before. I definitely recognise that German playing with them from somewhere else. Wait a minute. That's the exact core of that team we whipped in 2006, plus a guy Daryl Katz and Kevin Lowe humiliated themselves trying to trade for! Oh god! Flashbacks to happier days not-so-long-passed, of Fernando Pisani and Mike Peca and Radek Dvorak, of heroism in the face of insuperable odds that weren't actually so insuperable because, well, it was the Sharks and it was the playoffs, so they weren't ever going to win. No, the Sharks are out.
That leaves only the Chicago Blackhawks. A talented young team made up of an assortment of remarkable young men. Their leader, Patrick Kane, is both a modest young man and an almost devilishly subtle hockey player of a Hockey Hall of Fame calibre in spite of his small stature. Jonathan Toews is obliged to stand in Kane's shadow only because that shadow is so wide: he combines formidable skills of his own with a wicked tough streak. Although predominantly an undersized skill team, men like Dustin Byfuglien give them enough toughness to stand toe-to-toe with any who would challenge them in the alley. There is no question about their ability after losing as a young team in last year's Stanley Cup final; the only question is how long they can keep that core together.
Oh, come on. Like I even have to tell you what that reminds me of.