Impressive Oilers tie things up vs. Stars with third-period lockdown

Gene Principe and Mark Spector break down how the Edmonton Oilers stormed back to defeat the Dallas Stars in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, discuss the lineup changes made by head coach Kris Knoblauch, and preview what lies ahead.

EDMONTON — “I like where we’re goin’.”

Kris Knoblauch’s lineup depth had just helped beat the Dallas Stars, who come billed as hockey’s deepest team.

His Edmonton Oilers, who have squandered leads with regularity this spring, had just locked down a third-period lead like Mariano Rivera playing for Jacques Lemaire’s New Jersey Devils.

And his three lineup changes had produced a Ryan McLeod goal, a Corey Perry assist, the best Oilers forward line of the night and 14 of the cleanest minutes you’ll see from young Philip Broberg on the blue-line.

The 5-2 win that resulted — with five consecutive Oilers goals after Dallas scored twice in the opening 5:29 of the game — on Wednesday not only evens this series at two games apiece, but injected plenty of belief into a team and a city that perhaps weren’t sure that they had this particular type of win in them.

“Every win gives you a little bit more belief,” said Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl, who found his dominance again, despite a hand injury and a wonky back. “We know how good we can be, and when we put everything together, we’re a really hard team to beat.

“But so are all the other teams that are still playing. Four good teams left, and we’re one of them.”

This Western Conference Final has been momentum swing upon momentum swing, with two teams that are strong enough to grab hold of a game, and good enough to yank it back.

“It’s funny in the playoffs, how the psychology works,” said Oilers forward Mattias Janmark. “It was a really flat start from us, but right away when they scored the second one, we said, ‘We were in that position two days ago. And now let’s flip the script on them.’”

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When you’re trailing a must-win game 2-0 not six minutes in, it’s a worry. When you walk into that dressing room for the first intermission and the score is 2-2, you’re likely better for the experience.

“We had guys jumping over the boards trying to get the momentum back,” said an emerging Oilers forward Connor Brown, who has been a factor in this series. “Not trying to make a flashy play or anything. Just simple, hard, win your battles, win your races. We were able to hold the momentum, and then played a great third period.”

Brown fed Janmark on a shorthanded two-on-one for the 3-2 goal in Period 2 that would stand as the game-winner, a pass that Brown lovingly termed, “a bit of a s— burger.”

Janmark deftly turned his body to get the shot off high and quick, leaving no chance for goalie Jake Oettinger, and suddenly the Oilers penalty kill has outscored the team’s power play 1-0 in this series.

“I would not call it a s— burger,” Janmark said. “I’ll take those passes any day.”

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It was a key goal, and a depth goal, and on a night where McLeod also scored his first of these playoffs, the Oilers are suddenly getting stronger, now 16 games and 10 wins into this journey.

Perhaps the truest sign of a team that is getting better as this series extends was a third period where Dallas, trailing 4-2, pushed hard, yet barely made a dent in Edmonton’s facade.

“That’s a huge step,” Perry said. “You learn from things that happened in the past and … we played above them in the third period. That’s how you have to play against these guys. If you let them behind you, they’re going to kill you off the rush. In the third, we did the right thing.”

After a courageous come-from-behind win, teammates rallied around defenceman Darnell Nurse, who had a brutally unlucky start to the game but finished with a key assist and 12 hits. He’s been feeling the heat from fans and media, and at the morning skate held a curt and very swift media scrum before walking out with a smile and a wave.

“There’s a lot to be said about Darnell,” Brown said. “Everyone and their dog coming (after) him this morning, two tough bounces to start the game, and then he settles in and plays probably his best game of the playoffs and leads us to a victory. That’s character right there.”

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So we now shift back to Texas, where the Stars will await x-rays for key defenceman Chris Tanev, who did not return after blocking an Evander Kane shot early in the second period.

Meanwhile, the Oilers have perhaps found a centre in Draisaitl who can play an effective game at the pace required to get the best out of Perry, they’ve got a penalty kill that has killed 23 straight penalties, and a quick and clean defenceman in Broberg who will help with zone exits.

And they have confidence, the kind that could find them the road win they’re going to need before this series concludes.

It’s a new series, a best-of-three, and the blue team feels pretty good about itself.

Like the coach said, “I like where we’re goin’.”

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