As per usual, the Edmonton Oilers will be teeing it up at a golf course near you as early as Monday morning.
For the ninth straight spring, the Oilers missed the playoffs — by a country mile — and their fans are now left to cheer for a lottery ball next Saturday in hopes of “winning” the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. But with five Canadian teams making the post-season for the first time in what seems like forever — 10 years to be exact, since 2004 — the playoffs are sure to captivate Oilers nation.
That begs the question: Which bandwagon should the Oilers’ faithful jump on? It didn’t take long to come up with five teams worth rooting for. And, no, the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are not among them. That would just be wrong and sacrilegious.
1) Winnipeg Jets
Oilers fans can easily relate to Jets fans, both cheering on small-market underdogs in cities with not much else to cheer for. As wild as Rexall Place got during Edmonton’s last playoff appearance in a run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final, that has nothing on the Whiteout in Winnipeg — past or present. Manitoba hockey fans eat, sleep and breathe the Jets and they haven’t witnessed playoff hockey since the Old Jets left town in 1996. That team bowed out in the first round, losing in six games to Detroit when the Red Wings were still in the West, but the scene at the old Winnipeg Arena was beyond words. Rest assured, the MTS Centre will be rocking much the same way when the Anaheim Ducks roll into town — even if the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is no longer a big hit. Need a refresher of what to expect, or maybe that was before your time?
Winnipeg fans might have been hoping for a first-round matchup with St. Louis, given the nice little rivalry they had brewing — Jets captain Andrew Ladd came nose-to-nose with Blues counterpart David Backes during Winnipeg’s 1-0 win on Tuesday — but, alas, they will face those blasted Ducks instead. That might be a better matchup for the Jets in the big picture and if they can get a split out of California, then look out . . . and brace for all kinds of madness back at Portage & Main.
These Jets are also a blue-collar bunch who scratch and claw for every goal they get — much like the Oilers of the late ’90s or, dare I say, the Flames of today. It’s not hard to get behind a team like that.
2) Ottawa Senators
The Sens, and their improbable playoff run, have been simply stunning. They punched their own ticket on the final day of the regular season thanks in large part to two guys Oilers fans are watching closely — former Edmonton Oil Kings captain Curtis Lazar, who assisted on the winning goal, and pending free-agent goaltender Andrew Hammond, who could be cashing cheques in the City of Champions come the fall. The Hamburglar is undoubtedly on Craig MacTavish’s radar and he can receive a contract offer on Canada Day if the Senators don’t lock him up between now and then.
What a feel-good story Hammond has been — flash in the pan or not — and Lazar got his 15 seconds of fame from this craze too, by grabbing a burger off the ice and eating it during a post-game celebration.
It’s been a fun ride to this point and who knows where it’ll go from here, but why not pull for the Sens for as long as it lasts? It’s just too bad they have to face the next team on this list in the first round . . .
3) Montreal Canadiens
The only other Canadian team that Oilers fans are allowed to cheer for, and the one with the best chance — on paper — of bringing the Stanley Cup north of the border for the first time since the Habs won it way back in 1993. If Montreal is the last Canadian team standing after the second round, then it makes sense to hop on this bandwagon in hopes of ending that two-decade-long drought.
Former Oilers defenceman Jeff Petry was dealt to the Canadiens at the trade deadline and he’s been enjoying unprecedented offensive success in recent weeks after adapting to their winning culture. The Oilers have a vested interest on that front, because the further the Canadiens go, the better the draft pick gets — with each passing round — in return for Petry.
Tom Gilbert is on Montreal’s roster too, so there are some Edmonton connections, although Lars Eller did compare the Oilers to a junior team a couple years ago. But those comments came during Dallas Eakins’ infamous reign, so it’s hard to hold that against the Habs and he was probably right in hindsight.
Carey Price and P.K. Subban are two other guys who would look great in Edmonton colours, but that is obviously a pipedream, so Oilers fans will need to live vicariously through les bleu, blanc and rouge.
4) Minnesota Wild
Go Duby? Yes, no, maybe? Devan Dubnyk has arguably been an even bigger success (and surprise) than Hammond, and the former Oilers netminder is now in the running for the Vezina and perhaps even the Hart Trophy. Sure, he’s looking like the one that got away, but don’t blame him — blame Eakins and his swarm defence, or MacT for his inability to build a credible blue-line.
They say playoffs are a new season and it’ll be interesting to see if Dubnyk’s heroics will carry over or if he’ll come crashing down to Earth. He got pulled in Minnesota’s regular-season finale against the Blues, who just happen to be the Wild’s first-round opponent. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Dubnyk and Co. can hit the reset button in time for Game 1.
5) New York Rangers
Glen Sather did a lot for the Oilers and now that he’s getting long in the tooth, it’d be nice to see Slats win one more Cup before butting out his big ol’ stogie for the last time in a press box. Granted he’s already got six rings — too many for one hand — and is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but Slats is one of the good guys and an Alberta native from Viking.
Besides, it’s always better to cheer for an East team and there might not be a better one this year than the Rangers, who will be attempting to make it back to the big dance for a second straight time. That will be easier said than done with parity at an all-time high — evidenced by the defending Cup champion Los Angeles Kings and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Boston Bruins both missing the playoffs — but these Blueshirts have as good a shot as anybody after capturing this season’s Presidents’ Trophy thanks to a strong second half.
The Rangers will have to get through Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round — a rematch from a seven-game series last spring — but if they clear that hurdle, it shouldn’t get a whole lot tougher the rest of the way. Edmonton fans will be firmly behind the Rangers in that initial matchup because the Oilers own Pittsburgh’s first-round pick this year — from the David Perron deal — so the sooner the Penguins are eliminated, the higher that selection will be.
Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.