Despite disappointing exit, Oilers learn valuable lessons from Avalanche

Gene Principe and Mark Spector discuss the Edmonton Oilers' elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche, including the lessons the Oilers could learn from the Avs and how they can build on a strong foundation.

EDMONTON — After a dazzling spring full of lead changes, 15-goal nights, and an offensive display that took us back nearly 40 years to Wayne Gretzky and the boys, the 2022 Edmonton Oilers fell off the fire wagon Monday, fittingly in a thrilling 6-5 overtime loss to Colorado.

Of course, it was.

If this is what’s coming — if this is the kind of high-wire hockey that lies ahead for an Oilers team that looks like it has found a foothold — then sign us up from coast to coast.

In a sport that leaned towards tight, defensive hockey when the chips were down in May and June, Edmonton gave Canadians a steady diet of 5-4 hockey, with Connor McDavid (33 points) and Leon Draisaitl (32) averaging two points per game through their 16-game run.

“It feels like it’s steps, right?” said a disappointed McDavid, moments after a handshake line with the clearly superior Avalanche. “Every team kind of goes through it: They become a playoff team, then they get there most years, they go on a little bit of a run and they learn that lesson. Then it becomes their time to win.”

In their fourth consecutive season of winning at least one playoff round, that much is clear: It is Colorado’s time now.

“You look at a Colorado team that's been in that situation many, many times,” nodded McDavid. “They're knocking on the door right now. It's a step in the right direction (for Edmonton), but that's all it is.”

Look, there isn’t a person in Oil Country who would tell you that Edmonton would win this series against Colorado if they dropped a puck for Game 1 again tomorrow night. Colorado is better — full stop — a team that shares the electric style of game that Edmonton plays, but is deeper, with more talent at more positions.

But this wasn’t eight wasted days, as Darryl Sutter once said.

Big picture, this was a look into the future against Colorado, after two series wins that took a franchise from frustration to foundation. They know now that they can win, but more importantly, this spring was a lesson on what it takes to really win.

“There’s no participation medal,” said goalie Mike Smith. “It’s very disappointing.”

“We’re hungry. We’re a hungry group,” said defenceman Darnell Nurse. “You get to the conference finals, and there’s a long, long road to get back even into the playoffs next year. Then the grind begins.”

Edmonton stumbled through Round 1, only to answer the bell with a Game 6 must-win in Los Angeles, a game that may stand as the finest 60-minute performance in the seven-year career of the game’s best player, McDavid. Then they came home and locked down a 2-0 win in Game 7 to set up the first Battle of Alberta in 31 years.

The Flames and Oilers opened that series with a 9-6 circus of a hockey game, followed by four straight Oilers wins, a 132-foot goal, controversial reviews, and a five-game walk over a Flames team that nobody thought would lose to the loose, defensively challenged Oilers.

The series ended, of course, with a McDavid moment, an overtime wrister off the post and in, and a cruise down main street on Saddledome ice, fist-pumping his way from Cowtown to Colorado. There, a McSeries between him and Nathan MacKinnon would only have been better had it lasted a couple of games longer.

Draisaitl marched through these playoffs like a peg-legged ship captain, refusing to let an ankle injury stop him from entering the NHL record book with his incredible string of three- or four-point games in all five games of that Calgary series. He closed the book with four primary assists Monday, a display of pain management that recalls the great Oiler Lee Fogolin, who set the standard for pain threshold when he removed his own filling with a curtain hook one game day in Hartford.

Meanwhile, Nurse tore a hip flexor in the last week of the regular season, and missed only one playoff game due to a suspension. He’s played better to be sure, but in this sport what Nurse did is what leaders do.

He could skate, so he could play. For better or worse.

“Our medical staff… taped it up, gave me some anti-inflamm’s and away you go,” Nurse said. “There’s no excuse when you get to this point in the season. You want to be on your game and play at a certain level. There’s no excuse. Everyone’s banged up this time of year. And myself personally, I wanted to be better in this series. It’s just added motivation for summer to come back and be a difference-maker next year.”

“Warriors, warriors,” said Smith, shaking his head. “But those are your leaders. Those are guys other guys look up to and when you’re seeing your top players battle through injuries and throw it all out on the ice and give it everything they have then you want to do the same.”

Smith ran out of gas in these playoffs, unable to give his team the saves it required to get this series back to Denver for Game 5. The Oilers led 3-1 and 4-2 in the third period, but allowed four goals.

They needed a late goal to force overtime, and of course, delivered. When it came to the kind of edge-of-your-seat hockey that kept an Easterner up past bedtime every second night for six weeks, this Oilers team delivered more magical moments than Houdini.

Seriously, who plays this much 5-4 hockey in a 3-2 league?

These Oilers did, again, for better or worse.

“The way the playoffs worked were the way the playoffs worked,” shrugged head coach Jay Woodcroft, who drove this F1 car with one hand on the wheel, at times. “We lost three one-goal hockey games in this series (with two empty-netters). That's a function of the way the game was being played.

“Can we do better defensively? We can. We scored five goals tonight. Should be enough to win a game.”

That’s how we will remember this Oilers run, that on a lot of nights, five goals weren’t enough. You needed more.

We all wanted more of this kind of hockey, and with Colorado blazing into the Stanley Cup Final, we’ll get more of it.

The game we love up here in Northern Alberta, it’s back.

Hang on to yer hats, folks.

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