Oilers' failure to put Blue Jackets out of reach proves costly

Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Elvis Merzlikins, left, stops a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Zach Hyman during the first period an NHL hockey game in Columbus, Ohio, Sunday, April 24, 2022. (Paul Vernon/AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was, alas, one of the stranger “too many men” penalties you are ever going to see. And punitive, as it would turn out.

The teams were changing on the fly, but nobody was actually “flying.” It was a wholesale change, except the Edmonton Oilers possessed the puck — so sending five guys over the boards as Duncan Keith stood patiently behind his net with the puck on his blade in a 2-2 game, was definitely not the plan.

Five fresh Columbus Blue Jackets players came on to the ice, as did five Oilers, joining Keith.

Er, wait a sec…

“And coming off a good shift too. We were getting some momentum,” added Oilers defenceman Tyson Barrie. “Yeah, that is a weird one. I’ll have to go back and watch the tape as to what we were up to there. Not an ideal one for sure.”

The penalty, however innocuous, stood as the turning point in a game that should have been closed out over the previous two periods by Edmonton. The Oilers entered the third period with a 2-1 lead, where it could easily have been 4-1 or 5-1.

But the Blue Jackets hung around, and hung around, and then tied the game on a scrambly goal just 96 seconds into the third. Then, at the eight-minute mark, Keith stood cooly, patiently behind his net, as Edmonton sought to exert their will over a Blue Jackets team whose playoff aspirations have been dead for weeks upon weeks.

“There was a little bit of pushing match on the way off between our forward and their D-man,” explained head coach Jay Woodcroft, of the suspect change. “We stayed on, and the person jumping on for that that player didn't realize that he didn't come off.

“A mental error at an important point in the game.”

On the ensuing power play, little Nick Blankenburg — an Okotoks Oilers grad playing just his sixth NHL game since leaving the University of Michigan Wolverines earlier this month — sifted a long wrist shot through a screen that gave Columbus a lead they would not surrender in a 5-2 win.

And an Oilers team that has recently downed such Western mighties as Colorado, Vegas, Dallas and Nashville fell prey in Columbus, a wasteful two points left on the table — but perhaps inevitable after the healthy run this Oilers team has put together to all but clinch second place in the Pacific.

“We didn't capitalize, right?” said Zach Hyman, who like Brett Kulak, Kailer Yamamoto, Barrie and a few others, failed to bury Grade A chances in the opening 40 minutes that would have rendered the final 20 moot. “We had extended O-zone possessions, had good looks… That’s just what happens, when you let a team stick around, right? You give them life.

“As you get close to the playoffs, those chances are getting harder to come by,” Hyman reminded. “So we’ve got to put it to ourselves to bear down, and especially early. Put them away early and take the life out of the game.”

Connor McDavid had two assists, reaching a new career-high with 118 points (43 goals, 75 assists). Leon Draisaitl scaled the 55-goal plateau for the first time in his career as well, with a signature power-play one-timer from his office.

But the big milestone was left for one of their remaining three games, as Edmonton needs a win — or a loss by the Los Angeles Kings — to clinch second place in the Pacific and home ice advantage in Round 1.

“The bottom line is you have to be better,” said Barrie, who was less concerned with a clunky third period than the 40 minutes that preceded it. “We had a lot of chances to score in the first two periods. We have to bear down on our chances, be sharper and put them away when we have a chance.

“We were chasing it there at the end of the game when we probably could have avoided that.”

For a head coach who loves to teach, this lesson will require little instruction. It’s up to each guy, he said, to be finer with their opportunities to avoid reckless losses like the one Edmonton suffered on Sunday in Ohio.

“On a personal level, we can be sharper to convert those,” Woodcroft said. “Their goaltender played very well, and that’s the type of goaltending you’re going to see … in the playoffs. You have to find a way to be personally sharp, so that you can maximize those opportunities. Because there won’t be as many in the playoffs.”

Edmonton played without Darnell Nurse, who is back in Edmonton with a lower body injury, and Jesse Puljujarvi, who stayed home ill. Among the six defencemen asked to replace Nurse’s nightly 25 minutes, only Barrie exceeded 20 minutes in ice time at 21:42. Of the other five defencemen, only Kris Russell (16:53) played less than 18 minutes.

“Missing Nursey, he’s a big piece of this team,” said Barrie. “You don't replace what he brings, and you saw all of our minutes go up tonight. Hopefully he won’t be out that long.”

Edmonton flew to Pittsburgh after the game, where they will practice Monday in preparation for Tuesday night’s conclusion of their 2021-22 road schedule, a game against the Penguins.

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