Often there’s light at the end of the tunnel when bitter rivals play each other twice in three days and there’s a free-spot on the bingo card between the anticipated rematch.
But the Edmonton Oilers don’t exactly have the 28-point Detroit Dead Things coming in Friday. They’ve instead got the 70-point Stanley Cup champion freight-train St. Louis Blues.
Detroit only has 12 wins this season.
St. Louis only has 12 losses.
So much for a Cup hangover. Going into Thursday’s action, only the Washington Capitals (73) have more points than the Blues, who were 15-18-4 on Jan. 2 of last year, and are 61-22-13 since.
“We knew how the schedule looked coming out of the break,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett, whose team lost 5-2 and 2-1 in the two earlier meetings.
So, the two games against the Calgary Flames are sandwiched around one against the guys carrying the Cup last June, who have shown absolutely no weariness this season, soldiering on without their best pure scorer, Vlad Tarasenko, for the last 40 games because of shoulder surgery.
There were early hiccups but the Blues survived.
“We got away with it at the beginning of the year, not playing very good but winning games in overtime on nights we just weren’t there, but our goalies were really good,” said Edmonton-born Jay Bouwmeester, now 36 and playing Game 1,236 here against his hometown Oilers on Friday. “We realize after the break you have to ramp it up.”
Added his defence partner, Colton Parayko: “This league is so close. Look at the Pacific Division. Seriously, it’s one bounce on many nights, it really has become a game of mistakes. That’s the way I look at it. Now we’re into the last 30 games, starting to build, hoping for another long run.
“Yeah, I enjoy this (being the champs), everyone’s giving you their best game every night. Gives you a challenge, keeps you honest.”
Llike Bouwmeester, he saw the deep hole of last season become a pot at the end of the rainbow with the Cup victory.
“Part of the struggle at the start of last season was the new guys (Ryan O’Reilly, Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, rookie Robert Thomas, Sammy Blais) were playing pretty significant positions. And there was lots of shuffling. Guys didn’t know their roles or where they fit. But once Chief (coach Craig Berube) took over, he simplified it for everybody,” said Bouwmeester, the Blues elder statesman.
“Coaching now is managing people and as hard as that is, keeping everybody happy, you have to try. If you can keep everybody feeling important, killing penalties, playing against the other team’s top players or on the power play and scoring goals. When everybody finds their role valuable and they accept it, that’s when you become a real team.”
Tarasenko averaged 37 goals a year for five straight seasons before his shoulder surgery. He could be back for the playoffs.
“He’ll score eight to 10 goals a year nobody else can, at the right times. I mean we miss Vladdie because with one flick of the wrist, he can score and change the game. He’s got a Joe Sakic-type wrister. But Dave Perron has had a great year (52 points). He’s in Vladdie’s spot on the power play now and he’s scored (22) goals and it just snowballs,” said Bouwmeester.
The Blues don’t have a lot of interest in the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
“Last season in November, we all thought somebody was going elsewhere,” laughed Bouwmeester. “A couple of years ago we traded Paul Stastny at the deadline and that was a big turning point for our team. We thought we were still in the playoff race but realistically if we’d made it in we wouldn’t have gone anywhere. That started a reset and we’ve injected some young players into our team.”
The Blues seem a throwback to the hard, heavy teams like the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars. While small and fast works in regular-season, the Blues have a team built for league and playoffs.
They’ve got terrific foot-soldiers, just enough scoring and maybe the Selke Award leader in Ryan O’Reilly, who always seems to be on the right-side of the puck checking the stars with just five minor penalties.
“While everybody talks about how heavy we are, it’s not like we’re running teams out of the building,” said Bouwmeester. “We have lots of guys good at protecting the puck. Heavy sticks, guys like Sammy Blais, Barbashev, Sundqvist who many people don’t know about but they allow us to be a really good team,” said Bouwmeester.
The Blues have a big, mobile back-end that leans on you, probably the biggest blue-line in the league. And far from plodding.
“Our whole group’s pretty big. Petro (captain Alex Pietrangelo) is big and can skate and move. (Robert) Bortuzzo’s big. Even (Vince) Dunn is thick and can play heavier than he looks. It’s kind of how they’ve built our team,” said Bouwmeester, who usually draws the shutdown role with Parayko. “Our defence is pretty deep so there’s no real hard match-ups.I think Colton’s one of the most under-appreciated guys on our team.
“He doesn’t get a chance to provide offence but he’s pretty rock-solid.”