EDMONTON — They cracked first.
After all the wins on home ice, all the work on defensive structure and settling their game down to a style that can take them somewhere in the post-season, the Edmonton Oilers cracked first on Monday.
“It was a 3-3 hockey game in the third period,” assessed head coach Jay Woodcroft. “We made one more mistake than they did (and) it ended up a 4-3 game.”
That’s like calling Mount Everest “one hike.” Like calling Connor McDavid “one NHL player.”
With six minutes to play in a tight, 3-3 playoff game, The Big Mistake came, and it was made by Oilers goalie Mike Smith. A leader who should know better, a veteran who made a rookie mistake.
Playing the puck the way he always does when an opponent dumps it in, Smith forced a pass up the middle that began a series of events that cost Edmonton the fourth goal in a 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.
With plenty of time and a simple pass available to a defenceman waiting in the corner, Smith instead fired a puck right up the middle of the Oilers zone and right on the tape of the Kings' Alex Iafallo. Smith made a miraculous save to keep the ensuing chance out of the net, but within seconds Phillip Danault deflected a point shot home for the game-winner with 5:14 to play.
Smith’s team never recovered, dropping the opener of its Round 1 series to Los Angeles, the seventh consecutive playoff loss for the Oilers dating back to the bubble in 2020. Their playoffs are one game old, and already the Oilers face a must-win game Wednesday night in Game 2.
“Just trying to make something happen. Obviously trying to do too much there,” said a contrite Smith after the game. “In a tight game like that you can’t get afford to make mistakes like that, and it ended up costing us a game.”
Look, you make the deal when you accept Mike Smith as your goalie.
For all the zone exits you get from his stick-handling prowess, there are cough ups that end up in your net.
This wasn’t one of those, however.
This wasn’t a physical mistake, or a bobbled puck. This was mental — a player taking too big a risk at a time in the game when the safe play is the right play. A veteran player who should know that the playoffs requires patience. That you wait for your chance. You don’t try to manufacture it of nothing, or believe a 90-foot goalie pass up the gut will miraculously spring the winning breakaway.
In the end, Smith was a microcosm of this Oilers team. His game has been flawless for the past two months, just like the Oilers, who have installed a structure and reliability that simply wasn’t there when the puck dropped in Game 1.
Edmonton was behind 2-0 just 16:48 into their playoff journey, as nerves, emotions and the excitement of a sold-out playoff rink stole the structure from the home side's game. They looked nervous, like all the pressure rides on their shoulders.
“There are lots of emotions with fans back in the building and I thought we just didn’t handle it all that well. They got the jump on us,” said McDavid, who willed his team back into the game with a goal and an assist. “Obviously we didn’t have a great start. We gave up a few chances and found ourselves down by two. It wasn’t a good enough start in our home building.
“(But) I thought we did a great job of getting ourselves back in the game and giving ourselves a chance. Ultimately it’s one bounce.”
There were some positives to Edmonton’s game, though not nearly as many the Kings will dissect when they break this game down Tuesday morning. The Kings line of Danault between Iafallo and Trevor Moore was unstoppable, with each player scoring and the line splitting up four assists.
On Edmonton’s side, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ third line had a rough night, while Jesse Puljujarvi played just 7:52 and went minus-2.
Somehow, an Oilers team that was playing sound, structured hockey down the stretch reverted to their former selves, holding a track meet against a Kings team that was licking their chops at the thought of a loose opponent.
What happened to the structure? Emotions? Was it a mental thing? A physical thing?
“A little bit of everything you just mentioned there,” said Woodcroft. “There are areas that we can be better. It’s hard to fault the players' effort. For me, it comes down to execution … and trusting what your structure is.”
They’d better find it. Because if the Oilers thought the pressure was on them in Game 1, everybody knows what happens when a home team loses Games 1 and 2.
It’s not something anyone wants to talk about right now.