LOS ANGELES — It was for the Philadelphia Flyers in 1997, as it is today for the Edmonton Oilers: “A choking situation.”
The Flyers were, in fact, the vastly inferior team in that ‘97 Stanley Cup Final against Detroit. Edmonton cannot say that about their first-round series with the Los Angeles Kings.
Philadelphia’s head coach, Terry Murray, was looking for answers with his team down 3-0 in the series, a far slimmer deficit than the one Edmonton faces as it prepares for a Game 6 in Los Angeles, down three games to two.
“I wish I could find the answer. I don't know where it’s gone,” Murray said that off-day. “But many teams have been through this before.”
Then, Murray uttered the quote heard ‘round the hockey world, and one that follows him ‘til this day.
“It’s basically a choking situation, that I call it, for a team right now,” he opined.
The situation that the Oilers find themselves in today is different, but the same. They have not travelled nearly as far down the playoff road as those Stanley Cup finalist Flyers, and nor are they playing as stiff an opponent as the Western Conference champion Red Wings, circa 1997.
Yet here are the Oilers, so efficient down the final 35-game stretch of the regular season, down 3-2 and on the road. About to play an elimination game without suspended assistant captain and 25-minute defenceman Darnell Nurse.
After two straight playoff upsets, Edmonton was supposed to be over this phase of its ascension. Alas, like a basketball team stuck on a certain number on the scoreboard, Edmonton is one loss away from sliding back down the front side of the hump, with zero progress made.
“That can turn around,” Murray instructed that day. “The one thing about going through that phase is that it’s a mental block as much as anything. We’ve just got to break through to a better performance tomorrow, get to feel good about our individual play, our team play. If we can get one period under our belt with a good solid effort and come ahead with the lead, then let’s build on it.'”
So, it is fair to accuse Edmonton of what is the ultimate sporting insult?
It is too dismissive of a game Kings team to say that Edmonton is losing this series, instead of saying that Los Angeles winning it?
That they are choking?
• With the series in their grasp — tied 2-2 and at home in Game 5 — Edmonton came up small. They started slow, had a burst early in the second period, but had just 14 shots on goal after 40 minutes. Then, after a third-period flourish that forced overtime, Edmonton coughed up a goal on the first shift of overtime. Even with a second chance to win after an awful regulation, they came up short once again in OT.
• Choking can be defined by an uncharacteristic performance at the most crucial moment. When the heat is on, and an athlete does something he wouldn’t normally do, that’s a choke job. Well, the two biggest self-inflicted wounds in this series were authored by 40-year-old goalie Mike Smith, whose Game 1 turnover cost his team the game, and a head butt late in the second period of Game 5 that will see Nurse miss Game 6. Those aren’t kids making five-star mistakes. Those are Edmonton’s leaders.
• On the overtime goal in Game 5, Evander Kane — as good a forward as Edmonton has had for weeks — committed the neutral-zone turnover that led to Adrian Kempe’s winner. He couldn’t deliver the puck to L.A.’s zone, the quick turnover left Connor McDavid in a poor spot to defend, and Duncan Keith with an impossible gap. The veteran defenceman was exposed wide by Kempe, but a victim of a play by Kane that left tired Oilers in a bad spot against a fresh Kempe.
“Competition brings out the best in you, but sometimes it brings out the worst in you,” Murray said that day. “If you stop competing, you are never going to break through. And you are going to be in one of those teams that were also-rans your whole life.
“You're going to choke.”
The moment was too big for this Oilers team in Game 5. They choked.
But that doesn’t mean the series is lost.
Don’t forget, this is the L.A. Kings — not the 1980 Islanders or the ’77 Habs. Going into L.A. and winning one game is not on the top 10 list of the most difficult things to accomplish in this playoff season.
Edmonton is missing Nurse? Big deal — the Kings have been without Drew Doughty for the entire post-season.
Leon Draisaitl appears to be ill? Well, he’ll have to find a way to give his team more than one strong period in Game 6, something he did not do in Game 5.
And the head coach, Jay Woodcroft? He underutilized McDavid in Game 5, then threw together a defensive pairing in OT that failed the test.
In his first big playoff test, Woodcroft choked as well.
A coach who has coined the phrase “non-win” to describe a loss, however, will certainly not be going all Terry Murray on his club, when he speaks after the morning skate on Thursday.
“Aye, yi yi,” said Flyers defenceman Eric Desjardins the next day, when Murray’s soliloquy was relayed to him by a few distinguished hockey writers, Les Bowen and Michael Farber among them. “Is he trying to light a fire? I don't know, but it’s certainly hard to take as a player coming from your coach.
“It would be a lot easier to read about coming from you guys.”
The Oilers will hear it from us guys if they fail to come out of Round 1 for another post-season. And so they should.
This should never have become a choking situation.