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The anatomy of an NHL season is complex.
Look back after the 82-game grind has come to a halt, and it all seems fairly straightforward. The powerhouses surged, the lottery clubs languished, and everyone else sorted themselves into some form of a dark-horse or a disappointment.
But amid that regular-season slog, the schedule is dotted with, and defined by, moments. Those games that mean just a little bit more. Those opponents that fans rain a few more boos down upon. Those battles that seem to weigh heavier on the question of how far a team might go in the end.
It’s the rivalries that make a season. Not just the historic ones, not just the holdovers from last year’s playoff routs, but all those smaller ones. The games you circle on the calendar because you just want to see how exactly the drama plays out, standings be damned.
That in mind, with the first week of the 2023-24 campaign in the books, and that drama beginning to take shape, here’s a look at a few oddly specific rivalries that seem set to play a prominent role in the story of this season.
The Oilers vs. the Canucks (and the weight of Cup expectations)
Rewind back to a week-and-a-half ago, when this season was still shrouded in hypotheticals, and the Edmonton Oilers looked like a team on the cusp of greatness. Asked to fire off some educated guesses on how 2023-24 might play out, a wave of insiders from across the game tabbed Connor McDavid’s club to finally break through and lift silver — myself included. Generational talent can only be held down so long, the thinking went, and the group around No. 97 is as well-stocked as it’s ever been. Like Crosby and Ovechkin and MacKinnon and all the others, this was the year it would all come together for the game’s most prolific talent.
So, naturally, the Oilers hopped over the boards on opening night and got absolutely stomped, run out of the building via an 8-1 rout by a Canucks team that finished 22nd in the league last season. Still, it was the next game that really stoked the flames of this fire. Back on home ice, hungry for some quick-turnaround redemption to write off that early stumble, the Oilers came out in the second half of their home-and-home with Vancouver looking to flex their offensive might. Their three century men — McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — all scored. The Oil lost 4-3.