Oilers, Bouchard prove their defensive prowess in series win over Canucks

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins netted the eventual winner, plus Zach Hyman and Cody Ceci scored for the Edmonton Oilers as they took down the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 to advance to the Western Conference Final.

VANCOUVER — Evan Bouchard has become a metaphor for the jersey he wears.

Nobody ever talks about the Edmonton Oilers‘ defensive prowess as a team, while among scouts, the big “Yeah, but…” when Bouchard’s game comes up for discussion has always revolved around his work without the puck.

So there were the Oilers, allowing just a single goal against in five-and-a-half periods at the end of their second-round series against Vancouver, pitching a defensive masterpiece. And when it did get hairy after a couple of late Vancouver goals, with the Oilers trying to lock down a 3-2 win in Game 7 in enemy territory, who was on the ice defending that lead?

Bouchard, of course.

“Come playoff time, you’ve got to step up,” the humble defender said. “The team played very well, and I think when you get team success you get individual success after that.”

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The Oilers advanced to their second Western Conference Final in three years, allowing the Canucks just 32 shots and three goals on goal in the final six periods of play. They had this one in complete control at 3-0 when Ryan McLeod fanned on a pass with 8:33 to play.

But after another Canucks goal the Oilers dug in and denied Vancouver the magic they’ve conjured up throughout their own playoff run.

“We played 52 great minutes. Really, really good,” said Connor McDavid. “A little mistake (by McLeod), that’s going to happen, and obviously it gets chaotic. But I knew it was going to be a tight game. No one came in here thinking it was going to be some type of cake walk.

“They were playing for their life, pushing hard, sending everyone every time… We did a great job of bending but not breaking.”

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This series was Bouchard’s coming out party, with four goals and seven assists for 11 points and a plus-seven rating. Bouchard’s 20 points are the most in NHL history by a defenceman through the first two rounds of a single post-season.

In this series:

• Bouchard outscored Quinn Hughes four goals to zero, and 11 points to five.

• Edmonton outshot Vancouver 70-28 when he was on the ice five-on-five, and outscored the Canucks 10-4.

• He played more minutes than any player in the series, at 25:55 per night.

• He led Edmonton with seven five-on-five points.

“One of the smartest hockey players that I’ve seen in this league,” said Leon Draisaitl. “He has the puck an awful lot, so he doesn’t have to defend that much, right? Just a great hockey player.”

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Draisaitl was an absolute beast in this series, with a series-high 14 points in seven games. The leading Canuck was Elias Lindholm, who had seven points.

Draisaitl took on his usual diet of tough minutes, but J.T. Miller got the better of him in the circle on this night. That led to more Canucks possession, more Oilers defending, and more nail-biting for the folks back home in Alberta as the clock ticked down at a glacial pace.

“I think we can defend a little better at the end,” observed Draisaitl. “But you know they’re going to push at some point — they’re a really good hockey team over there.

“So for the most part I thought we played really well. Would we like to keep it a little less stressful? Yes, probably.”

Despite a ton of possession as they fought for their playoff lives, the Canucks only managed five shots on Stuart Skinner in Period 3. Vancouver owned the perimeter, but struggled all series to take the puck inside the dots.

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“The way that we played in the last two-and-a-half minutes, it was just amazing. I don’t think I got a shot,” Skinner said. “The guys just kept on blocking shots, kept on getting pucks out… It was very impressive how the team played tonight.”

Skinner came off the mat in this series, yanked in Game 3, but after being inserted to start Game 6 — his team down 3-2 in the series — he gave the Oilers more than enough goaltending to finally put down these pesky Canucks.

“There’s proof now that I have it in me to bounce back like that,” said the sophomore NHLer. “I’ve proved many times, but in a playoff situation like this … it’s something that I that I’m proud of.”

What’s different about this Oilers team since the last time it ventured into Round 3, only to be swept by the eventual Cup champs in Colorado?

For one, McDavid went pointless in Game 7 and the Oilers still won, on goals by Cody Ceci, Zach Hyman, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the local boy who had a goal, an assist and the game-winner in the town he grew up in.

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Also, through two rounds of playoff hockey, nobody would be surprised to learn that the Oilers have the best power play in the NHL at 37.5 per cent. But since when does Edmonton have the best penalty kill as well, at 91.4 per cent?

A four-minute kill on a double-minor to McLeod for high-sticking Elias Pettersson at the end of the first period could have tilted this game. But the Oilers killed it off, and did not allow a Canucks power-play goal in the final four games of this series (14 attempts).

They flew home to Edmonton after Monday’s game, and will jet to Dallas on Wednesday for Thursday’s series opener against the mighty Stars. Eight wins down, and eight to go for a team whose motto this season was “Cup or bust.”

“It’s the Conference Final, you’re going to play a great team and they certainly are one,” McDavid said of the Stars. “They’re a deep a team as you’ll find in the NHL. They’ve got four good lines, six D-men, and they’ve got a great goaltender. It’ll be a great test, and we’re looking forward to it.”

But first, a day of rest.

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