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Mike Harrington: In rising cities, Sabres and Oilers suffer falls from grace

Most of you have probably never found reason to go to Edmonton. Because of this gig, I have several times. Yes, it's cold. Really cold. But folks in Alberta are more than hospitable to visitors. It's always an interesting excursion.

The West Edmonton Mall — with its water rides, amusement park and ice rink — is the largest and one of the wildest shopping experiences in North America. Seeing Edmonton Oilers hockey games at Rexall Place brought back memories of its days in the 1980s as Northlands Coliseum, the home of Wayne Gretzky and one of the greatest shows in sports as the franchise won five Stanley Cups in seven years from 1984-1990.

The new arena, Rogers Place, looks like a giant spaceship on the outside and is a modern marvel on the inside.

As a city, Edmonton is rebuilding itself like Buffalo. We were once about the steel and auto industries. We're much more now about things like the incredible new medical campus and the business world. Edmonton, like Calgary, relies on the oil industry. But it's booming now in construction.

And both cities love hockey. But their teams are mired in tough times they thought should have long been over by now.

The Sabres and Oilers have their annual meeting Monday night in KeyBank Center, with key questions staring at both franchises as they head into another offseason of pain. We've moved well past the mere talk of Connor McDavid facing Jack Eichel in the matchup of the players taken first and second in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft that came on the heels of the greatest tanking controversy in the NHL in more than 30 years.

The major inquiry is this one: Will either of these teams ever win again?

The Sabres haven't made the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2011 and haven't won a postseason series since 2007, the year Daniel Briere and Chris Drury walked out the door in free agency. If the Carolina Hurricanes make the postseason this year — which is looking like a good bet — Buffalo's eight-year run of playoff-less springs will become the longest in the NHL.

Didn't we just get done using the word "drought" around here?

If you went on, the Sabres' chances of making the playoffs had slipped to just 1.7 percent Sunday morning. In mid-December, they were about a 93 percent lock to qualify.

So there's a good reason you are hearing snickers in hockey circles referring to the Sabres as "Edmonton East." Even though they had the No. 1 pick in the draft four times from 2010-2015, the Oilers are in danger of missing the playoffs for the 13th time in 14 years. They qualified in 2017, McDavid's second season, and beat San Jose in six games in the first round before losing Game Seven of the second round in Anaheim.

It was a one-year blip as reality hit hard last season with a 25-point drop to 78 and a sixth-place finish in the Pacific Division. This year, coach Todd McLellan was fired in November and General Manager Peter Chiarelli got jettisoned in January.

Mike Harrington: They kept teasing us, but this loss is the end for the Sabres

The Sabres went through that on April 20, 2017, when owners Terry and Kim Pegula fired coach Dan Bylsma and GM Tim Murray. And surely the progress they saw in places such as Edmonton and Toronto impacted their decision.

Things reached a new low for the Sabres Saturday night in Toronto, where a 5-2 loss marked their fourth straight to the Maple Leafs — a fate that had not befallen the Sabres since 1972.

The Sabres are about to join the 2017 Philadelphia Flyers as the only teams in NHL history to not make the playoffs in a season in which they had a 10-game winning streak.

There are massive falls from grace and then there are the 2018-19 Sabres.

They haven't won two games in a row since December, a stretch of 33 games. If you think back to 2014-15 — when ownership and management set up the Sabres to lose so they could get the best chance to draft McDavid — the team never went more than 31 games without a winning streak.

Coach Phil Housley was stammering pretty hard after Saturday's game when asked about the lack of any consecutive wins in nearly three months.

"It's hard to win any game in this league," Housley said. "I'm just saying this is a tough league to play. There's a lot of parity. Obviously on a back-to-back night, where we've done a pretty good job on back-to-backs, I liked the way we pushed all night. Obviously, we would have liked to have gotten this game because of where we are at this point in the year."

The players are out of answers. Housley seems out of answers, too. General Manager Jason Botterill said a couple weeks ago in Tampa that Housley was going nowhere but Terry Pegula famously said the same thing about Lindy Ruff and Darcy Regier and we know how that one ended.

The Oilers have Ken Hitchcock behind the bench now and Keith Gretzky, Wayne's brother, serving as GM for now. Good chance both won't be there by next season.

This kind of instability was supposed to be over when McDavid and Eichel showed up. Both managements failed to build teams around their young stars and the franchises, as well as the fan bases, keep suffering.

On an individual level, at least, both McDavid and Eichel are having productive seasons.

Eichel has already established career highs with 47 assists and 70 points in 62 games. His goal total of 23 leaves him in range of connecting for his first 30-goal season.

McDavid, of course, is perhaps the game's most prolific scorer. He comes into Monday's visit with 33 goals, 57 assists and 90 points in 61 games — and that comes on the heels of back-to-back seasons of 100 and 108 points.

McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, taken one pick after Sam Reinhart in 2014, both had three points in Edmonton's 4-0 win Saturday afternoon in Columbus and Draisaitl scored his 40th goal. Eichel had a seven-game point streak, tied for his season high, snapped in Buffalo's loss in Toronto.

Their fans may not want to hear it anymore, but both teams have a lot of hopes riding in their prospect pools.

The Rochester Amerks, Buffalo's top farm team, entered Sunday second overall in the American Hockey League in points (75) and third in points percentage (.658). They're leading their division and hopeful of winning a postseason series for the first time since 2005, when names such as Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad dotted the roster.

The Sabres also feel they have a mega-goaltending prospect in 19-year-old Finn Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who led his country to a gold medal in the World Junior Championships in Vancouver in January and set a franchise record with his 34th win of the season Saturday night for the Ontario Hockey League's Sudbury Wolves.

Meanwhile, Edmonton's team in Bakersfield, Calif., hit Sunday second in percentage (.670) while playing several fewer games. The Bakersfield Condors put together a 17-game winning streak — second-longest in AHL history — before it ended Friday night with a 1-0 loss to Iowa.

That's what Buffalo and Edmonton have right now. The future. It seems bright when it comes to the fortunes of their cities. When it comes to hockey, there's a lot more doubt.

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