There’s no tomorrow. Back to the wall. Must win. do or die
Break out the cliches, they all apply to the Edmonton Oilers tonight in Los Angeles. The club faces a 3-2 series deficit in their opening round series with the Kings and face elimination game tonight in Tinseltown. Win that, and their reward is another elimination game back in Edmonton on Saturday.
It’s been a weird series that hasn’t seen a single lead change within any of its five games. Whoever scores first wins, without ever trailing at any point.
The series itself tells a different tale, as it has featured two lead changes already with room (Oilers fans fervently hope) for one more. After dropping Game 1 at home, the Oilers responded with a pair of blowout wins, 6-0 and 8-2. But the Kings bounced back in the next two, shutting down the Oilers 4-0 at home before squeezing out a 5-4 win in overtime in Game 5.
That crushing defeat leaves the Oilers with (cliché warning) no margin for error in Game 6 tonight. And it certainly leaves no room whatsoever for another slow start.
The Kings have owned the first period in this series, which is pretty important considering the significance of that first goal. Over the five games the Kings have outshot the Oilers 85-47 and outscored them 5-3 in the opening 20. In the last three first periods — the equivalent of one full hockey game — the shots on net have been 55-22 LA It’s hard to explain how the same team could be so slow out of the gate in three consecutive crucial games without any apparent solutions.
Ace Leon Draisaitl put it after Tuesday’s OT loss, in which the Oilers trailed 2-0 after the opening frame, the Oilers “didn’t have [their] skating legs” in the early going. There was no reason for it then, and even less than one tonight. The squad needs to treat each of the 60 minutes as if their season depends on it… because it does. Same goes for the 61st minute and beyond if they prove to be necessary.
Speaking of Draisaitl, he had his own struggles in the first two periods on Tuesday as his line was burned for 3 goals against. By the third, Jay Woodcroft went back to a “nuclear option” that was preferred by his predecessors: Draisaitl and Connor McDavid on the same line. The duo combined for 3 goals in a dramatic third-period comeback to send the game to overtime. Alas, another slow start in the extra frame brought the game to a quick end.
Sounds as though the two superstars will remain a duo tonight, at least to start out. Kailer Yamamoto will fill out the line.
Despite his struggles at 5v5, Draisaitl has led the Oilers with 5 goals, opening the scoring in Games 2 and 3 and tying the score in Games 1 and 5. All of them came in other manpower situations — 3 on the powerplay, 1 shorthanded, 1 in a 4-on-4 scenario. One common element? All 5 of Leon’s goals were scored with McDavid on the ice with him.
Tonight that twosome will get more chances to team up. It will be interesting to see which of them is tasked with faceoff duties. Normally Draisaitl is the go-to guy on the dot, but he’s been struggling there as well at just 43% in the series, circumstantial evidence that supports whispers of him dealing with a wrist issue or similar. So a scenario where he is tasked with a bit less of the heavy lifting makes sense.
This move adds pressure to the other centers to step up against tougher competition. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins moves up to Line 2 between Evander Kane and Zach Hymana trio that will likely face whichever of Anze Kopitar or Philip Danault is next up for the Kings after the 97-29 shift. Ryan McLeod moves back into the middle between Josh Archibald and Jesse Puljujarvi on Line 3, while Derek Ryan returns to the 4C role between Warren Foegele and Zack Cassian.
On the back end, the Oilers have a giant hole to fill given the absence of top d-man Darnell Nurse to a one-game suspension for head-butting. Brett Kulack will step into his spot beside cody ceci on the first pairing, a duo which played several games together down the stretch when Nurse missed the last 4½ games of the season due to injury.
The second pairing of Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard remains intact despite a couple of rough outings in Games 4 and 5, while Chris Russell will step in to the line-up besides Tyson Barry on the third pair.
There is a possibility that Philip Broberg — once again recalled from Bakersfield — might suit up as a 7th defensemen, but the best guess here is that Jay Woodcroft will continue to go with the more traditional 12 F / 6 D deployment.
It’s fairly clear that a few Oilers — Draisaitl, Puljujarvi and Nurse among them — have been playing at less than 100%, with the latter two having an obvious “hitch in their get-along”. But tell that to the Kings, who have played the entire series without their own top d-man, Drew Doughty, along with high-end winger Viktor Arvidsson.
Making their first post-season appearance since 2018, the Kings have seen no fewer than 10 players make their NHL playoff debut in this series, compared to just a single Oiler, namely Bouchard. That’s one of the reasons Edmonton entered the series as the favourite. So much for the form charts.
Once again, Edmonton’s inability to win close games in the post-season has been a major problem. Consider that the last time the Oilers won a one-goal game in the playoffs was a 2-1 win over the Ducks in Game 2 of their second-round series back in 2017. That was the fourth close win in a row by the Oilers that saw them dispatch San Jose in Round 1 and get off to a 2-0 jump over the Ducks.
Since then the Oilers have played 18 playoff games, winning just 4 of them. The splits are nothing short of eye-popping. Over those 18 games, the Oilers are:
- 4-0 when scoring 6+ goals
- 0-14 when scoring 5 or fewer
- 3-0 in games *decided* by 6+ goals
- 1-14 in games decided by 5 or fewer
- 0-10 in 1-goal games
- 0-6 in overtime games
Suffice to say if you need 6 goals to win in this league you’re in trouble at any time, let alone the playoffs. The Oilers need to find different ways to come out on top, be it great goaltending, tight defence, timely scoring, even in overtime should it come to that.
Another key will be to stick to the business at hand, which is beating the Kings, not laying to beat on them. There’s not much room for unnecessary penalties or worse of the type incurred by Kane, Kassian or Nurse last game. The best way to lay settle scores is to send your opponent home for the summer.
And as another old cliché has it, the time to be doing that is now or never.
Connor McDavid is officially in the running for his third Hart Trophy, having previously received the award in 2017 and 2021. The voting is already complete, the above are the top three vote-getters presented as “finalists”. While the names above are presented in alphabetical order, best guess here is that the actual votes have gone the same way.
All three players had great seasons, but there is surely a little Oilers fatigue among the PHWA voters. They have, after all, selected an Edmonton player to this prestigious trophy 3 times in the last 5 years including the last 2 in a row. (Draisaitl won it in 2020.) The last Ranger to win it was a guy named Mark Messier back in 1992, while the last Maple Leaf was Ted Kennedy way back in 1955.
The Oilers have confirmed the expected signing of University of Denver star forward Carter Savoie to an Entry Level Contract. The timing of the deal before Edmonton’s season is done will burn the first year of the three, a standard procedure for top college players.
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