The Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks had remarkably similar nights on Monday, as each lost on the road to an inferior team in overtime. For the Oilers, some more underwhelming goalie play by Mikko Koskinen and a last-minute near-side winner for Tim Stützle from a tough angle gave the Ottawa Senators a 3-2 victory in front of a limited crowd of 500. For the Ducks, they were solidly outshot by the Detroit Red Wings but still pushed the game to overtime, only to lose when a brilliant faceoff win by Dylan Larkin set up Jordan Oesterle for the game-ender.
These twin results keep the Oilers and Ducks something like neck-and-neck in the Pacific Division. While the Ducks have 55 points through 48 games and the Oilers have 47 through 41 thanks to a number of COVID postponements, they’ve each earned exactly 57.3 percent of their possible points so far this year, sticking them in a virtual tie for fourth place.
From a bloodless neutral perspective, there are plenty of other easy similarities to draw between the two franchises. The Oilers’ goal differential is +2 and the Ducks’ is +4. Their power plays both rank in the NHL’s top 10. Their shooting percentages—9.8 for Edmonton and 9.6 for Anaheim—are nearly identical. One could say that the Ducks and the Oilers are having essentially the same season.
But they’re not! Not even close. While the Oilers’ year has been defined by disappointment and misery, the Ducks are flying high on the winds of optimism. Edmonton, in just the past few weeks, has been the subject of depressing headlines like “A new crack forms for struggling Oilers,” “Struggling, frustrated Edmonton Oilers continue searching for answers,” “What’s up with the Edmonton Oilers? Analyzing an extended slump,” and “This isn’t a slump, the Edmonton Oilers have serious problems.”
The Ducks, meanwhile … well, hockey journos don’t write about the Ducks anywhere near as often as they do Edmonton, but recent coverage includes stuff like “Ducks’ John Gibson showing doubters why he’s still an elite goalie” and an array of jaw-on-floor reactions to that sick Trevor Zegras goal.
So how does one team’s trash season become another team’s thrilling first half? Let’s start by trying to recap what’s gone down in Edmonton. The Oilers started the season in dominant fashion, winning their first nine out of 10, but they started free-falling in December, though five straight games with at least a point have cushioned them at least a bit. Throughout that dreadful stretch of losing, the entire mood around the locker room seemed to rot into a heap of misery and annoyance. The instantly infamous “Why are you so pissy?” exchange that reporter Jim Matheson had with Leon Draisaitl a few weeks ago summed up everyone’s frustration—players and non-players alike—all in a few seconds.
General Manager Ken Holland didn’t exactly improve public perception with his January signing of Evander Kane, who’s turned the NHL’s investigators into a perpetual motion machine with recent allegations against him that included betting on games, using a fake vaccine card, and domestic abuse. (The league suspended him 21 games for the COVID issue but said it found no evidence for the other accusations, which were made by his estranged wife, Anna.) The Oilers picking up the constant 20-goal scorer after he left such a mess behind in San Jose reeked of desperation, but it’s not hard to understand why they thought they needed him. Though Draisaitl is tied for the league lead in goals and Connor McDavid is having another Connor McDavid year, the Oilers continue to feature very few players they can count on outside of their top two. And suddenly, the three years left on Leon’s deal and the four years left on Connor’s don’t feel like all that many.
But while the Oilers have enjoyed at least the presence of a Hart Trophy winner in each of the past two seasons, the Ducks have done nothing of note for years. Last time out, they were second from the league’s bottom, ahead of only the Sabres, and this year they weren’t projected to do much better. Those predictions mostly held true through the team’s 2-4-3 start, but then an eight-game win streak completely transformed the outlook of this franchise. There was no superstar on the level of the Oilers’ duo, but many other blessings smiled down upon them. Gibson, the goaltender, rebounded back into his old form. Troy Terry, a 24-year-old near-unknown, has already more than tripled his previous career high in goals by scoring 25. And though he doesn’t lead the Ducks in any particular statistical category, the 20-year-old, former ninth-overall pick Zegras has become the team’s charismatic face, displaying an up-for-anything enthusiasm on the ice that leads to absurd and heretofore unimaginable goals like this one.
Even if the Ducks have lost some of their momentum since that first big win streak, Zegras and his blindingly bright future are enough to keep spirits high. Being tied for fourth, on the playoff fringe, is for Anaheim just playing with house money. The Oilers, on the other hand, haven’t won a playoff series since 2017, rewarding years of sky-high expectations with continued disappointment. Particularly with their shaky netminding and that weak bottom six, it’s difficult to see a path forward that doesn’t involve wasting more of their twice-in-a-lifetime guys’ primes. Being tied for fourth, on the playoff fringe, is for Edmonton just another disappointment.
Anaheim now gets to enjoy a long stretch of vacation as other teams catch up with them in the games-played column, and depending on how the Alberta squads do in the make-ups, the Ducks’ self-image could be significantly changed for better or worse the next time they step out on the ice. But either way, they have a lot to be proud of, having already topped last season’s point total by 12, and in eight fewer games. It feels good to be trending up. And it feels bad to be treading water like the Oilers, who’ve been stuck in the same place for long that the former division punching bags have caught up.