EDMONTON — There comes a time when you actually have to do it.
They can talk you up, about how you’re going to win playoff games, or waltz through a first-round series. And you can believe in your heart that they’re right, that you truly are better than the team that got swept out of the playoffs a year ago.
Believe that you’ve grown, and learned, and now it’s going to be your turn to win some games, maybe a series. To have a little of that success everyone has said was coming for so long now.
But until you actually deliver that dominant playoff game that we’re talking about here, well, you haven’t done it yet, have you?
The Edmonton Oilers delivered, finally, on a welcome Wednesday night at Rogers Place, obliterating the Los Angeles Kings 6-0 to even their Round 1 playoff series at a game apiece. After seven consecutive playoff losses, the Oilers fly down to L.A. minus home-ice advantage, but in full possession of their confidence and swagger.
“We stayed calm, believed in our structure and the way we can play,” said Darnell Nurse.
That’s what good teams do when adversity strikes. For one night at least, the Oilers looked like a damned good team.
“With that said,” added Nurse, “it’s one game; there’s still a lot of hockey to be played in this series. But it’s a game we can build off of.”
After a comedic ending to Game 1 on a gaffe by goalie Mike Smith that authored the winning goal in a game the Kings likely deserved to win, this was a virtuoso performance by 18 skaters and a goalie who was entirely unrattled by what had transpired two nights before.
Smith stopped 30 pucks for the shutout, in a game that was tied 0-0 after 20 minutes before the Oilers scored three in each of the next two periods.
“(Smith) was really sharp for us early on, especially on those (first period) penalty kills. Personally, I really didn’t expect anything less from him,” said Evander Kane, who scored twice and added an assist. “He’s just so mentally tough. He played a great game (in Game 1), a mistake was made, it happens all the time. He had a great performance tonight.”
A Kings team minus injured leader Drew Doughty, and with eight players playing their first-ever playoff series, got an eyeful on Wednesday. They gave up three even-strength goals, two on the power play, and one shorthanded.
“Sometimes you tip your hat to the opposition. They played a really good game,” began Kings head coach Todd McLellan. “That’s called experience tonight. A lot of guys had their eyes opened up in terms of what playoffs is all about, and others were reminded to what playoffs are all about.”
This game was everything playoff hockey is supposed to be: A sold-out, full-throated building that may have driven Advil stock up a few points, it was so loud. Heavy, physical hockey, with a price to be paid for every touch on a night when the Oilers followed an unlikely source en route to running the Kings right out of Rogers Place.
It wasn’t complicated. The game Edmonton played would have won a game in 1982, 2002 or 2022.
Said head coach Jay Woodcroft, “I think when we’re simple, straightforward, direct — when we play with speed and simplicity and we have a pace and purpose about us — we’re a tough team to handle.
“It was a strong game, 20 players deep, in our lineup tonight.”
At this point, we should talk about Connor McDavid, who somehow found a way to do something we’ve not seen before — and it had nothing to do with goals or assists.
Like Sidney Crosby before him, McDavid has focused down on his defensive game and faceoff work, and sometime during this season he made the step that all great centremen must make. His defensive game in Game 2 was impeccable, but that doesn’t surprise us so much anymore. He has attained that level in his game, which was inevitable.
In Game 2 however, McDavid brought a physicality never before seen. He literally punished Kings players with hit after hit, somehow finding a way to add another layer to what undoubtedly is the best game in the National Hockey League today.
And the result? The rest of his team did the same thing.
Playoff Zack Kassian emerged from the cocoon that regular season Kassian had wrapped himself up in, while Josh Archibald — who received the medical exemption that will allow him to play the rest of the playoffs for Edmonton — led their team in hits.
“I look at the stats sheet,” Woodcroft said, “and Zack Kassian finished with six finished checks. He was a menace out there. Josh Archibald finished with five finished checks. And when you see your leaders getting physical, guys like Leon and Connor and Nuge, it’s contagious. It pays off over the long haul.”
The pairing of Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard played more than any other duo and was excellent. Jesse Puljujarvi scored and appeared to have some confidence. Draisaitl scored a key powerplay goal that stood as the game-winner.
This is what the Oilers are supposed to look like. What we all said they were going to look like.
But they had to do it, and on Wednesday night they did.