Oilers facing questions with Cup-or-bust season on the line

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman discuss who the Oilers should start in net for Game 6, whether Calvin Pickard is overworked, and who Knoblauch would regret leaving on the bench for their do-or-die tilt.

EDMONTON — The Vancouver Canucks have found answers throughout this second-round series, in Arturs Silovs, in J.T. Miller and in a defensive system that has limited Connor McDavid to fewer even-strength points (four) than Nikita Zadorov (five).

And the Edmonton Oilers? They are left with the questions:

• Who to start in goal in their first elimination game of the spring? A rested Stuart Skinner? Or Calvin Pickard, who has given them a .915 save percentage, one win and held them in Game 5 for as long as a goalie possibly could?

• Do they reunite McDavid and Leon Draisaitl from puck drop in Game 6 Saturday? Or wait and see how the game unfolds?

• And what about McDavid, whose trademark explosiveness seems missing? Where did it go? Can it be retrieved in time? Do they have enough to win two straight with McDavid as just “a guy,” and not THE guy?

“We have to go home and win one game. That’s all we have to do,” said Draisaitl, reciting from the Book of the Brink, quoted by pretty much every hockey player whose opponent has ever had three wins in a series. “Don’t think about (Game 7). Focus on tomorrow, get a win, and come back (to Vancouver).”

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Edmonton completed an identical comeback two springs ago, in Round 1 versus Los Angeles. Though such an experience is nearly meaningless, it must be said that McDavid’s Game 6 in L.A. was a tour de force that is regarded as perhaps his finest NHL hour.

McDavid grabbed his teammates by the nameplates that night and hauled them up on his back with three points in a 4-2 win. Draisaitl barely missed a shift despite an ankle that left him one-legged, setting up the winner with 5:10 to play in a 2-2 game.

“That’s what we get paid to do, to step up in big moments,” Draisaitl said Friday. “We’ll look to do that again (in Game 6).”

Us storytellers will talk about a Round 1 series in 2022 over the next day or so, but inside an NHL dressing room, it may never be spoken about. It’s about score, not lore, for an Oilers team that needs to rip this series back from the hands of these pesky Canucks — it’s a tougher test than the Kings, to be sure.

“We’ve been down 3-2 in a series before and come back to win,” allowed Draisaitl, “but these series’, they all write their own history, their own story. There’s not much to talk about. We’ve got to go home and win one hockey game. We’ve done that a lot this year.”

Indeed, one win on a Saturday night at Rogers Place should not require divine intervention for a team that won the second most home games in its conference (28).

But with whom in net?

Head coach Kris Knoblauch’s ability to push the right buttons with his lineup choices has been borderline uncanny since his arrival in November. But this one — a choice between a rested ‘guy who got you here’ and a backup who has been anything but the problem — is a doozy.

“That’s probably the first time he’s started back-to-back games in eight years. Since he was with Colorado,” Knoblauch said of Pickard.

Actually, Pickard’s last back-to-back starts were also the last time he started three straight: In March 2021, for the Detroit Red Wings.

“And it’s not like it’s back-to-back days. There is rest in between, so there is the possibility of him being able to handle it,” said Knoblauch. “Our staff, we’ve slept on it, and we’ll get together (Friday) and decide who is going to play tomorrow.”

For Edmonton, it’s less about who is in net and more about the team in front of him.

Vancouver was the better team in Game 5, a sentiment voiced by each of McDavid, Draisaitl and Knoblauch in the hours since that 3-2 loss. The Oilers, a team that should be able to get to four goals or more on any given night, has to figure out why they haven’t scored more than three goals in a game since Game 2.

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The Canucks stole this series for a crucial 90-minute window on Thursday, and that was enough to put Edmonton on the ropes. The Oilers need to reclaim the flow of play, their challenge that comes with an obvious reward.

“That’s what good teams do,” Draisaitl said. “We all know there are momentum swings, but you’ve got to push through them. Find and create your own momentum. We didn’t do that at all (in Game 5).”

And what of all of those questions we’ve framed here? How does an Oilers team manage its business, with a “Cup or bust” season on the brink?

“There’s not much to manage here. We’re one loss away from going home,” Draisaitl said. “We’ll get ready for tomorrow and lay everything that we have on the line.”

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