DENVER —This was fun. Just not the kind of fun the Edmonton Oilers were hoping to have.
This was Space Mountain without a seatbelt, a New York cab ride with a blindfold on, a trip down the backside at Lake Louise on a toboggan, as the Oilers faced off in the Colorado zone with 90 seconds left, their goalie pulled in a 7-6 game.
It was great theatre — legendary! — that ended in an 8-6 Colorado victory. There, we’ve said it.
But here’s the stark reality, folks: When the game was in the balance, the Edmonton Oilers could not defend the Colorado Avalanche, they could not skate with the Colorado Avalanche, and they could not keep the puck out of their net against this Avalanche team that the Oilers caught up to only after the score effects set in.
The Oilers got their heinies kicked here, good and proper, on their first trip to a Western Conference Final since 2006.
But there is an alternate reality: Edmonton lost Game 1 against Los Angles and Calgary earlier this spring, and won both of those series. Of course, that means nothing on this stage.
“Colorado is a different animal,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft, who we will applaud for his approach to this loss.
He didn’t blame it on a controversial goal that was the fifth goal on a 14-goal night — “That’s not why we won or lost the game. We gave up way too much and we have things to clean up.” — and he didn’t moan about the ensuing powerplay goal, instead of challenging his team to get the kill and not make it a two-goal swing.
To a man, the Oilers were not impressed by one of the zaniest games we’ve seen in ages — OK, at least two weeks — nor were they blaming their 1-0 series deficit on a referee or someone watching a video console in Toronto.
They took a long, hard look in the mirror — the best thing an Oilers fan could hear this morning.
“We obviously have to change something here,” said Leon Draisaitl, harkening back to the 9-6 loss in their Round 2 opener. “We can't be giving up that many goals and expect to win a Western Conference final game. That's the second time this has happened. We've got to make sure we're ready to go right off the bat.
“And we will be better."
Goalie Mike Smith, yanked 25 minutes into this one on a night when no goalie would have done much better, took the pragmatic view.
“When you’re on the bench halfway through the game, it’s not a good sign,” he said, dressed in street clothes with his long hair tied neatly in a man bun. “When you’re giving up touchdowns in the last two series in Game 1, I think that’s not a good sign. But I think it shows a lot of our team that when we’re down, we’re not out of the fight, and continue to battle right to the end and play for each other.
“That’s a good sign. But lots to clean up.”
Do Stanley Cup calibre teams give up “touchdowns?” Even once in a playoff run, let alone twice?
Stanley Cup calibre teams know how to defend. How to give up less.
It’s how the Oilers played down the stretch, and a game they have to find against a powerhouse the likes of whom they have not yet encountered in this playoff run.
“We know that we can skate with them. We're one of the fastest teams in the league,” reasoned Draisaitl “When we play to our strength and play to our quickness then we're a really hard team to handle. You can see spurts of it in the third period, but it's obviously not good enough if you're down 6-3, or whatever it is. You're just chasing the game from there. We've just got to come out a little sharper, a little harder."
This was one hell of a spectacle, even if it was lost on most of its participants as they spoke moments after this 14-goal series opener.
It was a series opener that lived up to its impossible hype, with an offside replay that taught us all something about the National Hockey League’s rulebook, a starting goalie who got pulled while the other starter pulled something, and an Avalanche of offence in an 8-6 game.
It was the perfect hook to a series that might break all the TV records for a Round 3 series, because there isn’t a hockey fan on earth who won’t tune in to Game 2 to see what these two teams have in store.
But it was also the worst-case scenario for Edmonton, who were not close to Colorado’s level until the final 25 minutes of this one, with the score at 7-3.
It’s a problem they solved against the Calgary Flames, winning Game 2 and never looking back.
Can they pull their defensive game together against a team as dynamic as the Avalanche?
Only this much do we know for sure: The hockey world will be watching.
With a start like this, who won’t be watching Thursday’s Game 2?