EDMONTON — How long have the Edmonton Oilers been working on winning a game just like this one?
How many “lessons” came along the way — the one ‘L’ word that always led to that other ‘L’ word — in games where the fluky goal started a wave of momentum that they could never turn back? Where a 3-0 lead got lost, and nobody had it in them to find the goal that gave them another lead to cling to?
This Game 4 was exactly that — an opportunity to lose.
But on Tuesday the Edmonton Oilers simply grabbed hold of a hockey game and said, “We’re not that team anymore.”
“There are ebbs and flows to a game, to a series,” began goalie Mike Smith, who never saw the 132-foot dump-in that bounced past him for the game-tying goal with 9:04 let in the third period. “It is never perfect. But it is how you handle it, battle through the adversity and stick together as a group. We are doing that.
“When we are down, we are finding ways to get back in games. When we had the lead and they tied it up there, no one panicked and we kept our composure. We got a big goal by Nugget to seal the deal.”
In a series where the Oilers have been accused of being a one-man team, it was Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who gave the home side the complimentary scoring that the Calgary Flames simply can not find. The longest-serving Oiler scored twice — including the even-strength winner with 3:37 to play — in a 5-3 Edmonton win that gave the Northerners a 3-1 series stranglehold as this Battle of Alberta shifts south for Game 5 on Thursday night.
After 11 seasons in Edmonton and just 32 playoff games, Nugent-Hopkins’ goal put the Oilers one win away from a Round 3 he has never reached in a 719-game NHL career.
Was that the biggest goal he’s ever scored?
“I don’t think there is any question of that,” he said. “There is a lot of work left to do, but you would obviously rather be up 3-1 than (tied) 2-2.”
In a series where the Flames have lamented that “one guy” was beating them, Evander Kane had two more goals to reach 12 in these playoffs, Zach Hyman added his seventh, Leon Draisaitl chalked up another three-assist night, and the guy they call Nuge plunged the dagger in when he roofed a rebound behind Jacob Markstrom late in the third.
Connor McDavid settled for two assists, a quiet night by his standards, quietly taking the hit to set up Kane’s empty-netter that sealed the deal.
“Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was a first overall draft pick for a reason,” head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “He’s a heck of a player. He does a lot of really subtle things really well and makes us a deeper team.”
Wasn’t Calgary supposed to be the deeper team here, with better goaltending and a stiffer blue line? But four games in, five of the top six point-getters — and the top two goal scorers (Kane and Hyman with five each) — are Oilers.
In goal, Smith’s .913 save percentage is crushing Markstrom’s .850, and there’s a two-goal spread in their goals against averages (3.30 to 5.28).
Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk had three assists in that 9-6 Game 1 Flames win, but has produced just a single point since. He had one shot on goal and was scarcely noticed in Game 4.
Johnny Gaudreau left Edmonton pointless in Games 3 and 4. Calgary’s leading regular-season scorer and a Hart Trophy candidate, Gaudreau has had plenty of looks but hasn’t delivered a single goal in this series.
Meanwhile, McDavid extended his NHL record with his 10th multi-point game in 11 post-season starts, while Draisaitl became the first player in NHL history to record four consecutive three-plus points games in the playoffs.
Kane, with 12 goals already, is closing in on the NHL’s playoff record of 19, shared by Jari Kurri and Reggie Leach.
So, maybe it hasn’t been a one-man show after all that has Calgary at death’s door, heading home for an elimination game, the first of three chances Edmonton could have to finish this series.
“I think we all stepped up tonight,” said Nugent-Hopkins. “Every game is a team game, we know that. You can't win with one or two guys. It is a tough league. Especially come playoffs, you need everybody pulling on the same rope.”
Hey, we all remember the days when the Oilers had their dynamic duo, and that wasn’t enough to beat a good Winnipeg Jets team, or even a mediocre Chicago Blackhawks squad. Today, the two stars have vastly improved their games, the supporting cast is immeasurably better, and in a game like this one, there are enough solutions on their bench to find an answer.
“There has definitely been growth on this team, for sure,” said Smith. “There is a confidence this team is playing with that (and) we believe we can do some damage. Every game you win, you gain confidence from and you want to keep that ball rolling and doing the good things that make our team successful.
“I think the structure we are playing with, it makes us a really good hockey team.”