Oilers learn familiar lesson as Jets grind out Game 1 win

Connor Hellebuyck stopped 32 shots and the Jets put up three goals in the third, beating the Oilers 4-1 in Game 1 of their series.

EDMONTON -- Fourth line centre Nate Thompson had two points, while the NHL’s leading scorers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl had none.

If that doesn’t scream playoff hockey at you, then perhaps you’ve forgotten that the man who scored what is considered to be the biggest goal in Edmonton Oilers playoff history is not named Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri or Glenn Anderson.

He is Kevin McClelland, the third-line winger who won Game 1 of the 1984 Stanley Cup Final 1-0 with a quick wrist shot under Billy Smith’s glove. On a pass from, wait for it, Pat Hughes.

So, as the Winnipeg Jets steal Game 1 of this series on a deft deflection by a fourth-line, late addition named Dominic Toninato, a goal by third-pairing defenceman Tucker Poolman, and two assists by a guy who had just three apples all season, we should remember something:

The Winnipeg Jets have been to the playoffs four years in a row now. They know all about playoff hockey, how it gets played and how the games get won.

And the Oilers? Their only trip to the post-season in that time frame was that four-game debacle inside the bubble, when they played anything but playoff hockey, out-battled and out-guiled by the playoff savvy Chicago Blackhawks.

This was a 4-1 loss in which the book reads nothing like the way the cover looks. Edmonton dominated much of the game, outshooting the Jets 33-22.

The score says 4-1, but it was really a 2-1 game with two empty-netters. Connor Hellebuyck stopped everything they threw at him, because he could see everything the Oilers threw at him.

This isn’t the regular season anymore, when he had a .877 saves percentage against the Oilers. He was fantastic, which drives home the point:

Edmonton needs to work harder and get dirtier.

“We didn’t think we’d just show up, and they’d hand us wins night after night,” said Darnell Nurse. “It was a good, hard game tonight. And it will just get harder and harder from here.”

Let’s face it: Led by McDavid and Draisaitl, these Oilers have the art of the pretty goal mastered. They own the late-night sports shows, and all the Top 10 lists.

But now we’ve reached the time of year when those goals grow scarce, and the hard-working, ugly goal takes over.

“I thought we had the puck a lot of the night, played in their zone… Just didn’t find a way to get one,” said McDavid. “They get a tip. We didn’t. That’s playoff hockey.”

That is exactly how the Blackhawks beat Edmonton last summer. They got the greasy tips that Edmonton could not find.

This isn’t the first time this lesson has been taught. Professor Toews has already taken the Oilers through this course.

“They got a break on the winning goal and the first empty netter hit the referee’s (skate),” said head coach Dave Tippett. “That’s how I expect all the games to be right there. They’re going to be tight, you’ve got to capitalize on a chance, and you can’t give much away. The team that gets a break here or there ends up on the winning end.”

So Winnipeg walks in and takes home-ice advantage away just like that. That’s not really a big deal.

The big deal is, will Edmonton learn the lesson this time around? Can they score the types of goals that the Jets and Blackhawks scored against them? Do they have the makeup to collect a dirty win the same way they stocked up on the pretty ones all season long?

“We could do a better job being hard on (Hellebuyck),” McDavid admitted. “As forwards we have to do a better job of bringing traffic to him.”

“You’ve got to get more traffic to the front of the net, be harder on him,” added James Neal. “You saw Jess (Puljujarvi) — you find a rebound and you find a goal.

“We’ll regroup. We’ll be fine.”

This is the next step for this Oilers team now. It is clear as day.

Defensively, Edmonton was excellent. They allowed 22 shots on goal, and out-chanced the Jets. Led by McDavid and Draisaitl, they have altered their defensive conscience. Good on them.

Now, they must alter the offence.

More support scoring, more ugly, net-crashing, second opportunity goals. Less highlight, more low brow.

“Playoff hockey is tight hockey,” said Tippett. “You collapse around the net, you’re hard on the walls, you’re doing little things right. Finding ways to capitalize on an opportunity here and there…

“You can look back at all the regular season you want, it’s going to be tight. Space is at a premium out there.”

It’s early, but already this is a moment for these Oilers.

Let’s see how they respond.

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