With matchup vs. Kings decided, Oilers should be confident facing familiar foe

Nathan MacKinnon dished out two assists to set a new franchise record for points in a season with 140 and Valeri Nichushkin scored two goals as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Edmonton Oilers 5-1.

DENVER — An Edmonton Oilers season that began with the absurd, an 8-1 drubbing in Vancouver, ended with the sublime, a disaster averted in Denver in a game that ended quietly in a 5-1 win for the Colorado Avalanche.

In between — since the first week of November, not a small sample size — the Oilers were the best team in the entire National Hockey League.

After all of that, the Oilers walked out of their 82nd game of the season with their playoff foe unknown, as both the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights were still pounding away in the Pacific time zone, doing their best to define Commissioner Gary Bettman’s “competitive balance” to a tee.

Vegas lost to the lowly Anaheim Ducks, the Kings needed a thrilling late comeback and overtime goal to defeat Chicago, and the Oilers — while boarding their charter home from Denver — looked at their phones to read their marching orders: A first-round date with the Los Angeles Kings, first round victims of Edmonton in each of the last two springs.

[brightcove videoID=6351214935112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“I think we’re all excited for that, and so are they,” emerging Kings stud Quinton Byfield said in the post-game Kings dressing room. “It’ll be a good one.”

The Golden Knights, playing without a bunch of their important people, lost 4-1 at home to Anaheim to open the door for L.A. They’ll get Dallas, a death sentence for an injury-plagued Vegas team that hasn’t been right since about December.

Meanwhile, the Kings are going to have to figure out a way to beat an Oilers team that has vanquished them two years in a row, and won three of four games this season.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of lessons learned,” Byfield told reporters in L.A. “We had a younger group coming in a couple years ago. A lot of the guys in that room got more playoff experience.

“We know they’re a really good team. They have some star players. It’s going to be a hard series. Hopefully it’s our time now.”

After a week of canvassing the Oilers dressing room, we can tell you this: Connor McDavid’s team genuinely did not have a preference. There was a time they may have fretted their matchup, but five playoff rounds over the past two springs has forged a team that knows the fates dictate what lies ahead, so why waste time worrying about it?

They’re uber-confident versus L.A., and welcomed the chance to pay Vegas back for a Round 2 loss last season in which Edmonton led in every game — yet lost in six.

No one, however, would speak of a preferred opponent. There’s just no money in it.

Or, as Vegas veteran Jonathan Marchessault said to us a week ago, “You know, in some other years I was trying to figure out the easier matchups. The easier path to win.

“When we lost against Washington (in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final), I hoped for Wash because I thought we could match up better against Washington than Tampa. And look at us. We lost in five games.”

That’s what you get for trying to game the system.

In Los Angeles, Edmonton gets a team they’ve beaten in consecutive Round 1 series. As Leon Draisaitl said on the morning of their last meeting, a commanding 4-1 Oilers win, “We know how this game is going to go tonight.”

“We’ve done it so many times over the last two years. We know exactly how this game is going to go, and we’re going to be ready for it.”

They were.

You may recall Vancouver defenceman Nikita Zadorov’s assessment of the Kings’ game, after L.A. pulled off a 3-2 win in Vancouver back on March 25.

“They don’t really make plays; they just rim the puck and sit back all game,” Zadorov said. “I mean, it’s their goal to don’t play hockey and don’t let the other team play hockey, pretty much.”

The Kings will greet Edmonton with their staid one-three-one system. They send one forward in to forecheck — barely — and line up three players across the neutral zone, daring the opponent to try to carry the puck through their picket fence.

Edmonton, however, learned long ago that the boring, dump-‘n’-chase game is the solution to L.A.’s grind. Both series had a moment where they could each have gone the Kings’ way, but in the end Edmonton’s skill conquered L.A.’s gravel road in both series.

Today, a better and more experienced Oilers team will have even fewer issues with this familiar foe, we’d predict. And we haven’t even got to L.A.’s shaky goaltending, on a night where starter Cam Talbot surrendered four goals on 13 Chicago shots.

Meanwhile, in Denver, head coach Kris Knoblauch started No. 1 Stuart Skinner behind a lineup that did not include any of McDavid, Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins or Evan Bouchard — as well as their best defencemen of the past couple of months, Mattias Ekholm.

That’s all fine and good in Game 82, but maybe you shouldn’t have started Skinner behind a depleted team facing a hungry and fully-rostered Colorado team trying to get its game together.

Eh, Kris Knoblauch?

“It wasn’t fair for him,” said the coach, who inserted backup Calvin Pickard to start Period 2, with the score 4-1 Avs. “It wasn’t a very structured game. The chances weren’t just point-blank chances, and that’s very difficult for the goalie.”

Pickard, as is his strength, came on in Period 2 and settled the Oilers down. The rest of the game was won 1-0 by Colorado, and as such, left far less of a dent than if the first period had extended into the rest of the game.

It will be forgotten about tout suite, with the Oilers’ playoffs beginning Monday night in Edmonton.

It’s a “Cup or bust” season.

That doesn’t leave much in between.

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.