EDMONTON – All of the ingredients are there.
Division rival? Check. Exciting young superstar to draw the ire of opposing fans? Check. Former head coach now behind the bench of the other team? Check. Some bubbling nastiness between the two sides? Check.
The Sharks and Oilers haven’t been in the same hockey stratosphere in quite some time. You probably have to go all the way back to 2006, when Edmonton knocked off the Sharks in the second round of the playoffs and advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
But even that didn’t really lead to any ongoing feud between the two clubs, as the Oilers quickly nosedived. Now, they’re back, and unquestionably a team on the rise with Connor McDavid and Todd McLellan leading the way. The Sharks are at the top, defending their Western Conference championship this season and looking like they could challenge for another.
The Oilers will potentially be in the way.
“What you’ve got is a young team establishing themselves in the division, with L.A. and Anaheim and us,” Pete DeBoer said on Tuesday, before the most recent Sharks-Oilers game. “Typically, you’ve got big, heavy, hard teams. It looks like they’re going to be right there. I don’t think they’re going anywhere.”
The enmity between the two sides started last late season, when the Oilers’ Darnell Nurse wailed away on a defenseless Roman Polak on March 8, after Nurse thought Polak had tripped Matt Hendricks from behind (replays later showed he never touched Hendricks). The Sharks didn’t have time for any retribution before that one ended, but recalled Micheal Haley for a game two weeks later, essentially for the sole purpose of fighting Nurse.
He did, and drilled Nurse with a right hook just three minutes after the opening faceoff.
In the first meeting this season on Dec. 23, a 3-2 Sharks overtime win, there was some more maliciousness when Brenden Dillon fought Hendricks, and Haley and Zack Kassian went at it in the first period. Later, Kassian and Dillon got into it themselves. The most recent meeting in Edmonton on Tuesday didn’t feature any rough stuff, but it was competitive. The Oilers trailed 4-1 to start the third, and got back to within 4-3 before Logan Couture’s insurance goal sealed a 5-3 Sharks win.
The Oilers feature some new players that are familiar to the Sharks after years of skating on other teams. There’s no love lost between the Sharks and Milan Lucic, dating back to his run-in with Logan Couture in the first game of the 2015-16 season between the Sharks and Kings. Patrick Maroon spent five seasons in Anaheim as part of some emotional battles between those rival clubs, and Kassian is no stranger, either, spending four seasons in Vancouver. Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt.
Despite all that, though, no one was ready from either side to use the R-word just yet.
“I think you kind of get the rivalries once you get in the playoffs, like we have against L.A.,” Joe Thornton said. “I wouldn’t call it a rivalry quite yet, but who knows, down a couple years with the playoffs – hopefully you’ll build a bigger rivalry.”
McDavid would also welcome a playoff series. When asked if he senses a growing rivalry, the 19-year-old said: “Could be, yeah. Hopefully we get a chance to play them a bunch, and maybe have a few playoff series against them. They’re in our division, so you’re going to play them a lot of times.
“We’re hoping to become a team like them, where we’re as successful as them. They’re kind of the top dog, and we’re trying to take them off. Definitely, maybe a little a bit.”
From the Oilers’ perspective, calling them a rival of the Sharks would be a compliment. It’s more evidence that they’re back, and once again a dangerous team after so many years of futility.
‘That means we’re improving as a team, and we’re in the mix,” McLellan said. “You have to have that for a rivalry, you don’t get a non-playoff team and a consistent playoff team really creating that. If it’s evolving that way, that’s a good thing for our group.”