The Carolina Hurricanes edge the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7 of a stirring NHL championship, both clubs fully deserving of the accolades they receive for their spring runs.
Imagine their reaction had someone told them that very night in Raleigh how things would stand less than nine months later. The Oilers pretty much out of it in the West, the Hurricanes desperately clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the East with 14 nailbiting games to go.
“For you to tell me that night that we would have been in a battle with our conference to win hockey games and make the playoffs, I don’t think it would have dropped me,” Hurricanes head coach Peter Laviolette insisted Tuesday. “It would not have dropped my jaw.
“I would have just thought that we have to keep on fighting, because there is a lot of parity in the league.”
Ah yes, the p-word. There’s no denying the NHL is enjoying more parity than ever.
For as much as the Western Conference-leading Nashville Predators improved their odds by acquiring Peter Forsberg, it wouldn’t be a shock to anyone to see them knocked out in the first round by an eighth seed like Minnesota or Calgary.
The flip side of such parity, however, is what has happened to last spring’s Stanley Cup finalists. On top of the world one minute, down to earth in a hurry the next.
Never in NHL history have both Stanley Cup finalists missed the playoffs the following year. It could happen this spring.
“Everything is so close,” Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish said Tuesday. “There’s great opportunity but there’s also great vulnerability and both our teams are poster examples of that.”
MacTavish points to last spring’s conference finals – Buffalo versus Carolina and Edmonton against Anaheim.
“They were all non-playoff teams the year before,” said MacTavish. “It speaks to the parity of the league. You hate to be on this side of it, but on the other side there’s the fact that there’s tremendous opportunity to turn things around in a hurry.
“There are a lot things that are happening in the game in terms of upsets that have never really happened before in the history of the game. And this just a further example of us.”
So much has changed in nine months for these teams.
Take their rosters. From the 40 players that dressed in Game 7 of the Cup final, 15 of them have changed addresses, 10 of them leaving Edmonton.
Ty Conklin, Jaroslav Spacek, Sergei Samsonov, Todd Harvey, Radek Dvorak, Rem Murray, Dick Tarnstrom, Michael Peca, Chris Pronger and Ryan Smyth wore Oilers colours June 19 but are no longer with them. Martin Gerber, Aaron Ward, Mutt Cullen, Kevyn Adams and Mark Recchi sipped champagne that night for Carolina but now have new different uniforms.
“In a lot of ways, success almost precludes you from having continuity in your lineup because of the fact everything gets real expensive,” said MacTavish. “And you got to pick and choose the pieces you keep.”
Edmonton suffered a major blow shortly after the final ended. Pronger asked for a trade, which he got July 3. The Oilers haven’t been the same since, his departure leaving a gaping hole on their defence that remains today.
“When Prongs left . . . he along with Rollie (goalie Dwayne Roloson) were the two guys that were the most responsible for putting us in that position (reaching the final),” said MacTavish. “So that hurt. But we thought given the additions up front we’d be strong enough to put ourselves in a position, like we did the previous year, and then add some elements at the deadline.”
By the time the deadline arrived last week, the Oilers were too far behind in the West to be a buyer.
The Hurricanes can still salvage their season. Yes, their pride may be hurt by a season not up to the lofty standards of a Cup champion. But it’s not over.
“I’m glad that I have this team as we go down the stretch drive and fight for the right to get into the playoffs, because I know there are a tremendous amount of competitors in that room,” said Laviolette. “If we’re able to win enough games and are fortunate enough to play for the Stanley Cup again, I know that there’s a tremendous amount of confidence that this team can get it done again.”
The Hurricanes haven’t lost as many key parts as the Oilers, but have suffered key injuries to core players. Erik Cole, Bret Hedican, Cory Stillman and Frantisek Kaberle have all missed large stretches of the season.
Laviolette isn’t one for excuses, however. While the injures have been a factor, he points to another major issue.
“I think the best way to describe it is that consistency has been the biggest problem,” he said. “On given nights there has been a complacency that’s been evident.
“We have not had that same drive and energy and the quickness to our game that we had last year. In saying that, other nights our team is pretty darn good.”
One thing his team learned in a hurry this year is that they weren’t going to sneak up on anyone.
“There’s no excuses for it, we’re expected to show up and win games, but the truth of the matter is we do get everybody’s best game,” said Laviolette. “I think they’re fired up to beat the Cup champs. You see a lot of starting goalies, not too many backups. There haven’t been a lot of games where we’ve just gone out and walked over teams because they weren’t ready.
“I’m not saying that happened a lot last year, but I think teams maybe took us lighter at the start to the midway point last year.”
Still, the drop-off from last year is severe. Through the same number of games last season the Hurricanes were 45-15-6, two points behind Ottawa for the Eastern Conference lead and a dozen wins ahead of this year’s tally. More telling is their record at home – 17-13-4 this season compared to 27-5-1 at this time last year.
“It’s been disappointing and we’re frustrated by it,” said Laviolette. “All of us: the players, the organization, the coaches, everybody.”
Perhaps next season will be different. For both clubs.
“Hopefully we’re having the same conversation next year, and we’re talking about the resurgence of the Hurricanes and the Oilers,” said MacTavish.