Sunday, March 05, 2017

What Is ... Playoff?






A great thread on Twitter a couple of weeks ago with folks describing where their lives were the last time the Oilers were in the playoffs, back in the spring of 2006. For me, I was pushing forty, I am now just months short of fifty. I had a two year old and a baby, pictured above. Now I have three kids, the youngest is almost nine, the oldest is starting high school in the fall and the boy is, as I write this, playing D on his peewee team, probably no worse than about two dozen Oiler defenders from this past lost decade. The other night at the table, his voice deepening and cracking a bit, he explained how he was hitting puberty and was growing hair on his legs and 'in other places'.


With the Oilers' win last night they are eleven points up on the 9th place Blues, 10 up on the 8th place Kings and in second in the division. Heady days and the playoffs are, well I will just say it, the playoffs are going to happen. We Oiler fans have been traumatized and I know many of us won't believe we will see playoff hockey until the buzzer goes in game 82 and we realize this has not been some fevered dream, brought on by a bottle of Pernod, those funny smelling brownies your unkempt coworker gifted you and years of watching Jason Strudwick and Taylor Chorney trying to clear the zone on an endless loop.

 It reminds me of when any long suffering teams have won in the past for me. Not the Blackhawks whose victory came suddenly in overtime or strangely enough the Cubs, who seemed determined to extend their drought in that roller coaster game seven, no, I am thinking of the Red Sox and White Sox. Up three games to none and blowing out their opponents in game four, I waited for it all to fall to pieces even with two outs in the ninth and was mildly surprised when the final outs were recorded in both cases. I remember watching the Red Sox cough up game six back in 86 (everyone remembers Bill Buckner but the true goats that day were Bob Stanley and Calvin Schiraldi, both failing to get that third strike on the third out multiple times), sitting stunned in the lovely old Cameron with my pal Jeff Noonan, having blown off my classes that afternoon (a pattern that would repeat itself daily throughout my university career). We didn't care much about the Red Sox but both hated the Mets and so on a sunny autumn afternoon, the best afternoons in Toronto, we drank cheap draft in that dive bar, one of many places back in the day that would serve you underage without a second look or ask for any ID. Simpler times. When it was all over we stumbled out into the cold sunshine, buzzing but stunned at what we had witnessed.

 A book I have spoken about many times here, Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, describes the feeling of being a fan perfectly. The expectation of disaster is always there, it looms like the monster down in the basement, the one you heard in every furnace rumble when you were a kid. And today in the thirty team league you have almost twenty nine disappointed fanbases. I would not say twenty nine because there are teams that never had a shot and others that are on the rise for whom any improvement is acceptable. I have always said that the end goal is one thing only, to win the Cup, but a playoff spot this season would mark a successful campaign. I figured the Oilers as a team that might compete for a spot this season, I certainly did not expect them to be firmly in possession of a playoff berth with six weeks to go. Now the expectations are higher, I think winning a round is in the cards but while they could beat the Ducks or Falmes I also think they are close enough to those teams in terms of talent that not getting out of the first round would not be a disaster either. So this spring to me is like that time I went to the bar with nothing on the go and woke up the next morning in some stranger's bed, warm and spent and sated. I have had no expectations for years really. Playoffs this spring? A nice bonus.

 But next year ... next year is when we hear that monster rumble. The problem with having a thirty team cap league is that nothing is guaranteed. In two seasons the Oilers are going to be paying McDavid and Draisatl and some of the depth they have is going to have to be sent down the road and so really next season the Oilers have to be all in. The good news is that with the cap the number of elite teams is dwindling and the teams at the top are all flawed in so many ways, except for perhaps the Caps. The news that Kris Letang might have something going on that could take him out off the lineup longterm is that monster in the basement for Pens' fans. If he is out then that team goes from co favourite to also ran pretty quickly. So it is for everyone these days. It's pretty razor thin, that line, and you can go from a great team to the Kings, just struggling to make the playoffs, pretty quickly. The fact that the Hawks may actually be in the mix again, despite losing an all star team's worth of talent this past seven years, is truly amazing.

 Sidney Crosby won a Cup when he was still a boy and then had to wait almost a decade to repeat. Alex Ovechkin, one of the all time greats, may see his best chance this spring. Thornton, Iginla, Lundqvist. Stamkos ... it is not like the old days when great players nearly always won Cups, now they may get one shot, if they are lucky.

 Next year ... oh man next year. That's the year. This year ... well, of course some would argue, quite correctly, that this year should also be 'the year' and that Chia should have gone all in, trying his best to win it all not once but twice when 97 and 29 come cheaply. It's not some crazy idea, you look at Chicago and how they had to gut their club after that first Cup. Nothing is guaranteed.

 But for now I am enjoying this season and look forward to ... playoff.