Oilers must learn to ‘slow down’ Avalanche to preserve their chances

Gene Principe tees up Game 3 of the Western Conference Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Colorado Avalanche as the team from Alberta looks to beat the odds and overcome a 2-0 deficit.

DENVER — So, here’s what’s not going to happen.

The Edmonton Oilers aren’t going to simply up their skating game, fire up some free-wheeling, firewagon hockey and outscore the Colorado Avalanche in Games 3 and 4 at Rogers Place. The Oilers cannot put out this fire with more fire.

Colorado has more good players within its forwards ranks, and faster ones in its bottom six. On defence, they are both more skilled and quicker.

The Avs play fast hockey better than the Oilers play fast hockey, so it is up to Edmonton to slow this series down. To check better. To control the centre of the ice. To beat Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri — the best two centremen in this series thus far — over 200 feet.

Outscoring MacKinnon is not the same as outplaying MacKinnon. Connor McDavid knows that, and now he must do that.

[brightcove videoID=6307280658112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

I get it — nobody in Edmonton wants to hear this — but unless this series slows down a tad, the Oilers will be settling into a golf cart faster than the NHL’s Situation Room can rewrite a rulebook.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet,” head coach Jay Woodcroft declared on Friday morning. “There’s more there for us.”

“That’s obviously encouraging,” offered Leon Draisaitl, “but we’ve got to make sure that it’s coming soon. Really, really quick.”

So let’s have a little talk here, about what kind of “game” the Edmonton Oilers make their “best game.”

In Game 1, Woodcroft played McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line. Edmonton scored six, but allowed eight.

So he separated them for Game 2, and the Oilers cut their goals against in half. Yay. But, they got shut out in a 4-0 loss.

That, my friends, defines the quandary. Plan A didn’t work, and Plan B didn’t work.

Do we believe there is a Plan C?

Well, if there is, it had better involve winning more puck battles, taking better care of the biscuit in the defensive zone, and trying to find the odd-man rushes that propelled this Oilers team into their first Western Conference Final in 16 years.

Where will those rushes come from? Sound, defensive hockey, that’s where.

[brightcove videoID=6307270021112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Through two games, MacKinnon and Kadri have been checking better than Edmonton’s centres, and as such, they are the ones enjoying those odd-man breaks and cycle time in the offensive zone.

They get the puck, they have the puck. It’s pretty easy.

There is only one way this Oilers team won’t score, and that is if they never have the puck — as was the case in the last 40 minutes of Game 2, where the Oilers had 11 shots on goal. If Edmonton has the puck — if they work defensively; be stronger up the middle than MacKinnon and Kadri; stop the sloppy work in their own zone — they’ll score enough goals.

“We have individuals that have more to give, and as a team, our team game can be a lot more sound than it has been,” said Woodcroft. “I don’t feel yet that we’ve played a full 60 minutes. We’ve had good spurts, good periods, but we haven’t played a full 60 minutes yet. I know what our team is capable of, and certainly if we bring it over the full 60 minutes we’ll be in a good spot.”

I’d put McDavid up against MacKinnon any day. May the best man win.

But here’s the problem. Draisaitl, with his nagging ankle injury, isn’t skating well enough to centre a line.

Asking him to outplay Kadri isn’t fair right now, just as judging Darnell Nurse, whose game has been light, isn’t fair as long as he’s playing at 60 per cent or whatever.

What would I do with the lineup? Glad you asked:

I’d play Zach Hyman as my second-line centre with Draisaitl on one wing, and get Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up with McDavid. I’d bring Devin Shore in to help at bottom-six centre, take Josh Archibald and Jesse Puljujarvi out of my lineup, and add Philip Broberg, a seventh defenceman who can really skate, to help limit Nurse’s minutes.

I’d challenge Warren Foegele to start having an impact in these playoffs, because like Puljujarvi, he has not helped enough thus far.

And, no, this is not a place to play Dylan Holloway. Not in Game 3 with your playoff life on the line.

Make no mistake — Game 2 wasn’t lost in two minutes and four seconds, when Colorado scored three times. The Avs were the better team for the final 40 minutes, and have won four of six periods played so far in this series.

The Oilers, who beat Calgary in a series that averaged out at 5-4 every night, were the faster team with the better centres and a defence that moved the puck better than the Flames’ back end. All of that has flipped, with Colorado stronger in every area.

The Avs and Oilers are both cats, but one is a lion and the other a lynx.

Unless the lynx can figure something out, this fight won’t last long.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.