The Edmonton Oilers looked as terrific as they had in the Connor McDavid/Leon Draisaitl era. They finished the regular season with an 11-2-1 record, securing home-ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They were a lot more confident squad than the one that lost coach Dave Tippett his job in early February.
But what about now? The Oilers’ season is one loss from being gone after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night in Edmonton. Los Angeles currently leads the series three games to two, and the series has returned to California.
And why haven’t they beaten the Kings and advanced to the second round? Inability to start games with a sense of urgency and a lack of killer instinct. And with crucial defenseman Darnell Nurse banned for Game 6 on Thursday, they’ll have to win or face the issues that would’ve persisted if they hadn’t improved under Tippett’s successor, Jay Woodcroft.
Every game of the series was won by the team that scored first. That means Edmonton has been forced to play catch-up three times because they could not establish their game in the first quarter. To some extent, this is the fault of Woodcroft, but ultimately, the blame for the Oilers’ game starts is on the players themselves.
Not to mention that most of the pressure to win this series lies firmly on Edmonton. The Kings are essentially playing with borrowed money, with a team that is a mix of Cup-winning experience (Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick) and youthful skill (Adrian Kempe, Sean Durzi). If Los Angeles loses the next two games, there won’t be the same sense of failure that the Oilers will undoubtedly feel if the Kings defeat them.
If they fail, the Oilers will have squandered seven years of superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. If the Oilers lose to the Kings, they will have been unable to advance past the first round in six of the last seven years, and they have yet to play in the third round with Draisaitl and McDavid on board. That measure would have every right to enrage Oilers supporters. There is absolutely no compelling reason for them to be any worse than they appear right now.
If the Kings blow their lead and force a Game 7, Oilers supporters will continue to expect horrible things. Reality has taught them to be pessimists. This current roadblock is both psychological and partly structural – I’m sorry, but veteran goaltender Mike Smith isn’t at the point in his lengthy career where he can steal games – and it’s not going away anytime soon.
Whatever momentum the Oilers had into the playoffs has evaporated. Willpower becomes more important than ever from this point forward. They must demonstrate to themselves, as much as anybody else, that they are a roster worth retaining.
Without an early goal in the first period against the Kings as a sign that things would be different this time – the Oilers will fall quietly into the night. McDavid and Draisaitl will be on the bench when they excel on bigger platforms.
That, once again, is simply unacceptable. Edmontonians aren’t so ancient that they don’t recognize a legitimate Cup contender. The Oilers used to find it much simpler to impose their will in high-stakes games. For the time being, it appears to be a Herculean task they cannot meet.