EDMONTON — The Edmonton Oilers wouldn’t be favoured to beat the Colorado Avalanche, even if they had all their horses. We knew that when this series began.
But what this Western Conference Final is showing us is this: With a 25-minute defenceman in Darnell Nurse playing at about 50 per cent due to a core injury, and their second best forward in Leon Draisaitl hindered equally with his ankle issue, there just isn’t enough hockey team here to take a run at the class of the West.
“They’re a good hockey team. I’m gonna keep saying that,” said a downtrodden Connor McDavid, whose once-dynamic team has scored just two goals in the past six periods of hockey. “We're a good team, too, and we have to find a way to score, find a way to defend as well. I think we all can go up in our desperation. It has to be at an all-time high.”
This isn’t about desperation anymore. And the Oilers have proven, they can play hurt. They have as much heart and guts as anyone — that’s not in question.
Colorado is simply the better, deeper team. To be honest, at this point it’s not very close.
With this series moving into garbage time, let’s count how many of the nine periods you think the Edmonton have won in this series. Not tied, but won.
The third period of Game 1? The first period of Game 3?
We can quibble over the ties, but we’re talking about an Oilers team that piled up odd-man rushes in Rounds 1 and 2, that cycled opponents into the ground, and now they have two of nine periods against this superior opponent.
“There are things we can do better,” admitted head coach Jay Woodcroft, who has been playing the piano as fast as he can in this series, yet has been unable to find any results for all those buttons pushed. “I thought our compete, our try, was there tonight. In the end, it came down to one play and they made one extra play and they found the win.”
You can boil this game down to a 10-second window, as Woodcroft just did, when Evan Bouchard’s shot rang off the goal post in Colorado’s end. The puck went south, and found a fresh J.T. Compher coming out of the penalty box. He won a battle against a tired Bouchard and sifted a wrister through Mike Smith’s pads.
A weak goal on a night where you couldn’t ask for more from your goaltender. Well, maybe one save more.
“That's playoff hockey. Every play counts,” said Smith. “You’ve just got to take it one shot at a time and try and make saves for your team when the opportunities are there. Unfortunately, tonight it didn't happen.”
Alas, instead of a 3-2 Edmonton lead, it was a 3-2 deficit. As they say down at the curling club, Edmonton found itself on the wrong side of the inch.
“It's a game of inches,” said McDavid. “If that's an inch on the other side for Bouch, it's in. Like I said, not a great situation, but not over.”
With Evander Kane quite possibly not a player in Game 4, pending a review of his cross-check that has eliminated Nazem Kadri from this series, and Draisaitl hobbled even more after a rugged slew foot from Nathan MacKinnon, you’d have to squint pretty hard to see this series finding its way back to Denver for a Game 5.
You never know how or where it ends, but this series is all but over with Game 4 set for Monday night in Mudville, where today there is no joy.
“We just said that it’s not an ideal spot but we’re not quitting on each other,” Cody Ceci said, moments after the game. “We’re going to take it one game at a time. So all we’re looking at is next game. Hopefully, we can pull it out and try and get one in their barn, too.”
This version of the Oilers — with a couple of key depth forwards in Jesse Puljujarvi and Warren Foegele simply not helping enough offensively or making any discernable difference, with the injuries, and the ability for the Avalanche to zero in on McDavid as Edmonton’s lone threat — will be hard-pressed to extend this series.
The odd-man rushes that overwhelmed Los Angeles and Calgary have gone absent.
The McDavid wizardry has been denied by Colorado.
Zach Hyman’s ability to cycle the puck until a scoring chance presents itself, it appears to be over.
And so does this wonderful season for the Edmonton Oilers, snuffed out by a team that is simply superior in too many elements.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to tip your hat.