For those old enough to remember, the big story of the first half of the 80s was the intense Oilers-Islanders rivalry. The hot young guns versus the reigning champions. The irresistible force versus the immovable object. The new kids on the block versus the old guard. Those series weren’t so much games as wars, and they set the bar for future incarnations pretty high.
Fast forward thirty years, give or take, to the present day. The dynasty days of both teams far in the rear-view; save for one surprise appearance in the Cup final a few years back the Oilers have been so mismanaged and underproductive for so long, any sign of life is cause for celebration. The Isles, for their part, have been in rebuilding mode – serious rebuilding mode, not the patchwork hodgepodge of the Milbury years – for roughly the same amount of time. As luck would have it, the stars appear to be aligning for both teams simultaneously, with a slight edge to the boys on Long Island.
It would be near sacrilegious, to say nothing of inaccurate, to compare the Islander squad of today with those great 80s teams. The intent here is to compare their current contrast to today’s Oiler team with that of the titanic clash of a generation ago. We’re comparing comparisons, if you will, nothing more.
On Thursday these two teams met again, and for those who looked closely enough the line between past and present was blurred, ever so slightly. John Tavares is arguably the most dominant center on the Island since Trottier. Matt Martin invokes shades of Nystrom. Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald, Brian Strait, Travis Hamonic… bangers and grinders, doing all those little unsung things that winners need, reminiscent of the Gorings, Sutters, Morrows and Langevins.
On the other side of the tablet you’ve got the young upstarts, meshing together in a fine chemistry of talent. Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle, Gagner, Yakupov – high-flyers that can put fans in the seats, then bring them to the edge of them. Hot young goaltending and a maturing defense corps places this team on the cusp of a potential breakthrough.
Thursday night, as was the case so often all those years ago, the Isles came out on top. Tavares once again led his team to victory, continuing to show why the hockey writers weren’t wrong in putting him on the Hart trophy ballot last season, and might want to consider it again this year. The final score was 3-2: a close, well-fought battle between two young teams on the upswing. It’s not the kids up against the old guard any more, true enough. But it wouldn’t be that difficult to make the leap to these teams being among the league’s top contenders within a couple of seasons. And wouldn’t that be something, to watch the collision between today’s versions of yesterday’s juggernauts?