The second game of the first-round series between the Kings and Oilers couldn’t quite top the exquisite Game 1 drama of Connor McDavid slicing wholesale through the Los Angeles Kings or Mike Smith playing the puck up the middle to a Kings player, launching himself across the crease to stop the initial shot, and then letting in L.A.’s game-winning goal seconds later. (The Sportsnet announcer called this Smith’s “high-risk, high-reward” nature.) In fact, being a 6-0 Oilers win, Game 2 lacked any real drama at all. But the game was lots of fun as playoff blowouts go, and it warmed me even more to Jay Woodcroft’s Oilers (who kinda rock!) and this series in general (which kinda rocks!!). Let the east coast hockey elites insist Kings-Oilers is a matchup no one cares about. While they all go crazy for Igor Shesterkin and Jake Guentzel and Louis Domingue’s spicy pork with broccoli, I will simply tell you, politely but firmly, that this series is the most fun and very best.
Everything the neutral fan wants is here: two legitimately good teams that can fly up the ice, better-than-you’d-expect defenses, old timebomb-y goaltenders making everyone nervous, some young and potentially interesting Guys, some older and obviously interesting Dudes, L.A.’s bad special teams and Edmonton’s good special teams, and some great crowds so far. The series is tied as it heads back to L.A. for the next two games.
The Pacific Division gets some flak for how easy it is to make the playoffs out there. I will admit to recently messaging a colleague, “jeez the pacific is so garbage i’m so jealous” in a moment of Atlantic Division frustration. But do not let the division’s deservedly poor reputation this year keep you from seeing the light, which is that the Edmonton Oilers are really, truly good. Since Woodcroft took over as head coach in mid-February, the team has dramatically improved its 5v5 play. The forward group holds its own with Connor McDavid off the ice. The defensemen, whose names individually might cause one to tilt one’s head and scrunch one’s face in an apprehensive way, have proven decent when deployed carefully and given roughly balanced ice time. They are all still kind of old and slow except for Darnell Nurse and Evan Bouchard (whose 37-year-old visage belies his true age of 22). But by distributing the minutes the way he has, Woodcroft has ensured that the unit is not old and slow and overtaxed.
In the past, it was not uncommon for McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to play crazy minutes to compensate for the team’s otherwise badness. But they do not need to do that as much when the rest of the team can generate chances and score goals like this Bouchard bomb deflected in by Ryan McLeod, one of the series’s young and potentially interesting Guys. Neither Draisaitl nor McDavid even led the Oilers forwards in TOI last night. What growth! It follows that when the two of them are not gassed and dying from skating 30 minutes a night, they will play better, too.
The opponent shouldn’t be dismissed either. The Kings weathered injuries to basically every defenseman on their roster this season (including Drew Doughty, out with season-ending surgery), so their blue line is a fun little mix of vets and—yes, that’s right—potentially interesting young Guys. Rookie defensemen Jordan Spence and Sean Durzi have been handed lots of responsibility by their coach, Todd McLellan. Durzi, for example, is already quarterbacking the first power play unit.
He may want to leave that off his résumé, however, as the L.A. power play is not very good. It sucked bad enough last night that they got scored on shorthanded. So problem #1 for the Kings is that the series may feature the greatest special teams disparity in the postseason. Problem #2 is that, though they can dominate possession and create chances off the rush, the Kings struggle to score at even strength. The difference between their actual goal total and expected goal total was worst in the league this season, and comically worse than the 31st-worst finishing team. It seemed like whenever I watched them, they would either win by a goal or lose by five and get shut out. Which Kings game will we see more of this series? The very cool shutdown center Philip Danault kept McDavid and Draisaitl quiet in Game 1 whenever they shared the ice and put up two points of his own, but he could not manage the same feat in Game 2.
If you are interested in scouting youths to build out your own Guys List, the Kings can also offer you a fourth line centered by potentially interesting 19-year-old Quinton Byfield, the second-overall pick in the 2020 draft. Honestly, his line has not done much this series beyond getting hit by Zack Kassian or narrowly avoiding being hit by Zack Kassian. But this is the Pacific Division, baby. Anything can happen. Maybe, just maybe, they will do something cool…