For a while there, the Edmonton Oilers were looking as good as they have in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl Era. In the final month of the regular season, they posted an 11-2-1 record, and solidified home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Clearly, they were a much more confident bunch than the group that cost coach Dave Tippett his job in early February.
Now, though? The Oilers find themselves one loss away from having their season ended, thanks to their overtime 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Kings Tuesday night in Edmonton. The defeat put L.A. up three games to two, and now the series shifts back to California.
And the reason they haven’t pushed past the Kings and qualified for the second round? A lack of killer instinct, and an inability to start games with a sense of urgency. And now that key defenseman Darnell Nurse has been suspended for Game 6 Thursday, they’re going to have to pull a win out, or face the questions that would’ve remained had they not improved under Tippett’s replacement, Jay Woodcroft.
In every game of the series, the team that scored first wound up winning. That means, three times, Edmonton has been unable to establish their game in the first period, and were forced to play catch-up. That is on Woodcroft to a degree, but ultimately, the responsibility for their starts to games falls on the Oilers players themselves.
And let’s not forget, the majority of pressure to win this series is squarely on Edmonton. The Kings are playing with found money, in essence, with a roster that is a mixture of Cup-winning experience (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick) and young talent (Adrian Kempe, Sean Durzi). If L.A. loses the next two games, there won’t be a serious sense of failure that the Oilers will definitely experience if the Kings eliminate them.
Should they fall short, the Oilers will have wasted seven years of employing superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. A loss to the Kings would mean Edmonton has failed to make it past the first round in six of seven years, and they’ve yet to play in the third round with Draisaitl and McDavid on board. Oilers fans would have every right to be incensed by that metric. There’s simply no good excuse for them not to be better than they appear to be right now.
If the Kings squander their advantage and Edmonton forces a Game 7, Oilers fans will continue to expect bad things to happen. Reality has conditioned them to be pessimists. This current hurdle they’re facing is partly psychological and partly structural – I’m sorry, but veteran goalie Mike Smith just isn’t at the place in his long career where he can steal games – and it isn’t about to go away.
Whatever momentum the Oilers had coming into the post-season has vanished. From this point on, willpower factors into it more than ever. They need to prove to themselves, as much as anyone else, that they are a roster worth keeping intact.
Without that – without an early goal in the first period against the Kings, an indication this time, things will be different – the Oilers are going to go meekly into the night. McDavid and Draisaitl will be on the sidelines, when they should be shining on increasingly larger stages.
Again, that’s just unacceptable. Edmontonians aren’t so old that they don’t remember what a genuine Cup threat looks like. It used to feel a lot easier for the Oilers to impose their will on high-stakes games. For the moment, it feels like a Herculean challenge they’re unable to rise to.