Even in a loss, Oilers prove they can compete in ‘playoff-style’ games
EDMONTON — Slowly but surely, the Edmonton Oilers are beginning to look like a team that can win games the way they’re played in May and June.
Inch by inch, 3-2 win by 2-1 shootout loss, the Oilers are looking more and more like a team that can operate as effectively in a game like the one played Saturday — where the score was 0-0 at the 45-minute mark — as they do when the shackles come off in a 5-4 track meet.
Edmonton lost Saturday, 2-1 in a shootout to the Colorado Avalanche. But they lost in a skills competition after firing 50 shots at Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper, including an 11-0 shot clock in overtime.
They did not lose because they lost their patience in a tight game and made a low-risk play that ended up in their net. More likely, Jesse Puljujarvi’s failure to bury two immaculate feeds from Connor McDavid was the culprit, critical miscues in a game like this one.
They lost because Kuemper was otherworldly in the Avs’ crease. Not because their own goalie was substandard, or let in that one smelly goal we have come to know in these parts, but not seen of late.
On this night, and more and more of late, Edmonton killed that penalty that was called with 2:24 to play in a 1-1 game, instead of losing that heart-breaker we’ve seen it lose so many times. And the Oilers dominated the overtime, a rare break for Mikko Koskinen, who was every bit as good as Kuemper, allowing only a Nathan MacKinnon roof job in the shootout, the only goal that passed in the skills competition.
“We’re scratching and clawing to get in. That’s all we’re doing,” said McDavid. “It’s a dogfight to get a playoff spot this year and we’re just trying to find a way to get in.”
McDavid’s defensive work is just the tip of the iceberg here. Now, Edmonton’s best player is providing all the right examples of how to play in a game like this one, and nothing less. And his teammates are following, because that’s what happens when the captain digs in.
This was a high pedigree game from McDavid in which he didn’t record a point. Not so long ago, that game did not exist.
“He was excellent tonight,” said his head coach Jay Woodcroft. “A lot of the defensive plays that he made in our own end were top notch. He was a threat every time he was on the ice.”
“Yeah, it was a playoff-style game,” said McDavid, who had five shots on goal in 24:13, and should have found an assist along the way. “(There were) not a ton of chances going either way, and I liked how we stuck with it and hung in there against a good team and found a way to get a point.”
When we talk about having to win 2-1 games against good teams come playoff time, this is what we’re talking about. It’s about getting points out low-event games, or games where the other goalie is stealing the show.
Sure, they lost a shootout. That’s a coin flip at this level.
And they don’t have shootouts in the post-season. They play, often, until the team that deserves a break gets one.
Play this way, and that break will likely find you when it counts.
“I saw everybody lay it on the line,” Woodcroft said. “I didn’t have to look for players. We had all four lines going. We committed to playing a certain style of hockey that I think is conducive to the hockey that is going to get played in the month of May. We are conditioning ourselves in that kind of atmosphere or environment.
“I thought the goaltending was excellent, our penalty kill was excellent, our sacrificing for our teammates was excellent. In the end, I really enjoyed watching our players compete extremely hard for one another.”
Warren Foegele got that fourth-line goal that often occurs in a game like this one, deflecting home a Darnell Nurse point shot. On most nights the top two lines are good for at least one, but on this night Kuemper was almost unbeatable, with 49 saves.
“It just looked to me like they were the quicker team and were more competitive along the wall,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar of Edmonton. “They came up with more pucks, got to the puck first and won more races than we did.”
It was a tough night for streaks, as McDavid saw his 15-game points streak ground to a halt on the end of Puljujarvi’s stick. The big Finn was robbed twice by Kuemper on sloppy shots that gave the goaltender a chance to make a save that he should not have been given.
Also fading into memory was Edmonton’s nine-game home winning streak, and their six-game winning streak. Had they won the shootout it would have been the first time since 2001 that Edmonton had won seven straight games.
Still, the Oilers are 12-2-2 in their last 14 games, and move four points ahead of Los Angeles with equal games played.
Second place in the Pacific is theirs to take, with nine games to play.
Two months ago, that seemed a pipe dream.