EDMONTON — We knew this was coming, didn’t we?
Maybe not as quickly as the Edmonton Oilers‘ Stanley Cup Playoffs opener, but eventually you knew that the question would be posed: “Is this still a two-man team? Or can the Oilers ever win a game that Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl doesn’t win for them?”
Well, here we are.
Winnipeg shut down the Dynamic Duo in Game 1, and they shut down the Oilers, winning 4-1 on a pair of empty net goals. McDavid’s line scored a goal, but he never got a point, while the Jets’ Top 6 never hit the score sheet either until their top line potted two empty netters.
“We’ve just seen that so many times,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said after Game 1. “The skill in some ways cancels itself out, and it’s the grit and grind guys who go to the net, put a puck to the net, stand in front of the net… It’s their game all year long and playoff hockey gets to become like their game and they’re good at it.”
The one clear advantage that Winnipeg carried into this series was depth at forward. They have more good forwards than Edmonton does; they’re deeper up front.
Adam Lowry is one of the NHL’s top third-line centres. Ryan McLeod, Edmonton’s 3C, played his first NHL playoff game Wednesday night. Fourth-line winger Trevor Lewis has two Stanley Cups from Los Angeles, and his 79 games of playoff experience was more than half of what the Oilers’ entire forward group — minus James Neal — took into Game 1.
So, if the Jets can make this series about the Bottom 6, well, advantage Winnipeg.
On a playoff journey where winning teams always look back at having had “a new hero every night,” Wednesday’s heroes were fourth-liners Nate Thompson (two assists) and Dominic Toninato (game-winner).
“I guess we have to bring more of that out of our game,” said Oilers depth winger Alex Chiasson. “For ourselves.”
McDavid was in on 57 percent of Edmonton’s goals this season. Draisaitl was in on 46 percent.
The fact is, general manager Ken Holland is not close to being done building this team. To a very large extent they ARE a two-man team, offensively, and will be until they get some bigger wingers in their Top 6, and some experience at 3C.
But the playoffs are here now — not a year from now — and we knew the time would arrive when head coach Dave Tippett’s roster would find itself trying to support its two superstars, rather than the other way around.
It failed in Game 1.
“We took steps in that direction this year,” Tippett said. “There was a big fuss about us winning a game without Connor and Leon getting on the score sheet. We did that (twice in nine such games) this year.
“That’s where you get to with a balanced team. Everyone is relied upon to do their job, but in the playoffs, you have to find other ways to win. We’ve done a better job of that this year.”
Neal. Chiasson. Zack Kassian. Kailer Yamamoto.
Maybe Josh Archibald with a shorty, or McLeod pots that chance he had from the top of the crease. Or Darnell Nurse and Tyson Barrie, two of the top-12 scoring defencemen in the league this season, get something to go.
These guys all realize that on a team with the NHL’s two leading scorers, they don’t have to produce much. They do, however, have to produce something.
“We realize how crucial those guys are to our team. What they’ve done throughout the season, in the past two, three years. Those guys have earned that,” Chiasson said. “The rest of us, I expect a lot out of myself. I expect myself to produce; I expect myself to make good plays, be good defensively.
“We’ve got to do it as a team. We’ve got to play together. We’re not worried about that.”
Well, ‘show me’ time has arrived early in Edmonton.
It’s time for a new hero, one whose cape does not have a 97 or 29 on it.