For a while there, the Edmonton Oilers set looked just as good as they did on Conor McDavid/Leon Drystel Era. In the final month of the regular season, they set a record 11-2-1, cementing their home ice advantage in the Stanley Cup playoffs. They were clearly a much more confident group than the group that commissioned coach Dave Tibbett to his job in early February.
Now though? The Oilers find themselves one loss away from the end of their season, thanks to their 5-4 loss in overtime against the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday night in Edmonton. The defeat made Los Angeles a three-for-two, and now the series returns to California.
Why didn’t they skip the kings and qualify for the second round? Lack of killer instinct, inability to start games with a sense of urgency. Now that main defense man Darnell Nurse has been suspended from Game 6 on Thursday, they will have to take the win, or face questions that would have remained had she not improved under Tippett’s replacement, Jay Woodcroft.
In every game in the series, the winner was ended up with the winner who scored his first goal. That means, three times, Edmonton couldn’t establish his game in the first period, and had to play catch-up. This is somewhat on Woodcroft, but in the end, the responsibility for their beginnings in games rests with the Oilers themselves.
And let’s not forget that the majority of the pressure to win this series falls directly on Edmonton. Kings play with found money, in essence, with a roster that is a mixture of cup winning experience (Anzi Kopetar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick) and young talent (Adrian Quimby, Sean Dorsey). If Los Angeles lose the next two games, there will be no serious sense of failure the Oilers will surely experience if the Kings wipe them out.
If they fail, the Oilers will have wasted seven years of hiring superstars Conor McDavid and Leon Drysittle. Losing to the Kings would mean Edmonton have failed to make it past the first round in six of seven years, and they haven’t yet played in the third round with Drysittle and McDavid on board. Oil lovers would have every right to be pissed off at this scale. There is simply no good excuse for them not to be better than they look now.
If the Kings squandered their advantage and Edmonton imposed a Game of 7, Oilers fans would continue to expect bad things to happen. The reality made them pessimistic. This current obstacle they face is partly psychological and partly structural – I’m sorry, but veteran goalkeeper Mike Smith is no longer in his long career where he can steal matches – and he’s not about to go.
Whatever momentum the Oilers had in the post-season has faded. From now on, willpower factors in him more than ever. They need to prove to themselves, like everyone else, that they are on a list worth keeping intact.
Without that – without an early first-half goal against the Kings, a sign this time around, things will be different – the Oilers will go quietly into the night. McDavid and Draisaitl will be on the sidelines, when they should shine on increasingly larger stages.
Again, this is not acceptable. Edmontonians aren’t so old that they remember what a real trophy threat would look like. It was easier for the advantagers to impose their will on the high stakes games. Right now, it seems like an enormous challenge they can’t take on.