The Avalanche Will Tolerate No Comeback
9:03 AM EDT on June 7, 2022
I'd imagine that no matter how dire their team's position in a series—say, down 3-0 against a deep and star-studded Avalanche team while your second-best player has one functioning ankle—an athlete truly has to believe that they can make a comeback, which is why I, having already eulogized the Oilers in my mind when they were down 2-0 in this proverbial situation, am not a professional hockey player. "You don’t play three in a row, you don’t play four in a row—it’s one at a time," Oilers defenseman Tyson Barrie said before Monday's Game 4.
Unfortunately for Edmonton, they did in fact play four in a row, and lost all four. The Avalanche completed the sweep against Connor McDavid, a one-legged Leon Draisaitl, the ghost of Duncan Keith, and crew on Monday night with a 6-5 overtime win, though credit to the Oilers' efforts, the mourning was nearly delayed for another day.
Where to start? With the Avalanche, as always. Specifically with Cale Makar, who scored a power-play goal for his first point (out of five) on the night. Zack Kassian was responsible for the penalty, a rather silly slash on Jack Johnson that wound up being his sole penalty of the game, though not through lack of effort. Kassian would also tackle Gabriel Landeskog, who was already hunched over on the ground, and hit Josh Manson in the numbers to the tune of zero additional PIMs.
The importance of the first goal in hockey is the rare beautiful piece of wisdom that is both a given and entirely incorrect. It's true that you want to score the first goal, even that the team that scores the first goal is more likely to win the game, because scoring more goals than the other team is how you win the game; it is not true that the first goal is more important than any other goal when it comes to winning. All that said, in this particular situation, it's easy to imagine a situation where the Oilers—struggling with injuries, a suspended Evander Kane, and an overwhelming Avalanche line-up even absent an injured Nazem Kadri—would bow out of the series with a whimper.
There wasn't much to dissuade this notion late in the first period, after the Avalanche recorded more shots on goal during an Oilers power play than the Oilers did. But after intermission, the Oilers followed up with both the offense and defense (or lack thereof) that people pictured in the best, messiest version of this series. Edmonton took the lead with three straight goals in the second period, Draisaitl notching primary assists on Zack Hyman's and McDavid's with—and this really can't be emphasized enough in both admiration and horror—one good leg. For the first time in the entire series, the Avalanche were down two goals.
The Oilers had pulled out all the narrative stops: a rookie making his debut in an elimination game, a comeback performance, and the rather macabre and ethically squishy "player playing through injury" narrative. However, like many things surrounding the Oilers, even the somewhat queasy good vibes couldn't be maintained until the very end. The play-by-play of the third period reads like a laundry list. Devin Toews scored 31 seconds in to bring the Avalanche within one, and after another Hyman goal (again assisted by Draisaitl, with additional help from McDavid), Mike Smith had A Certified Mike Smith Moment™, turning over the puck and giving up an unassisted goal to Landeskog. The floodgates were open; the Avalanche scored two more to make it 5-4, before Kassian tied the game off a rebound from a—you guessed it—Draisaitl shot and McDavid assist.
Add one more failed inspirational narrative: a late tie to send the game to overtime.
OT lasted just over a minute before Artturi Lehkonen sent his team to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. A near–high stick preceded the goal—it was close enough that Don Koharski said "holy shit" on the broadcast—but the goal stood after a brief review with the Avalanche already half-through their celebration on the ice. In the end, the Oilers had to wait to suffer their sorrow, an almost apt failed catharsis.
The questions that get trotted out each year in the Oilers' commitment to acting out a Sisyphean tragedy will inevitably come: What happens to Connor McDavid? Where do the Oilers go from here? But maybe this year the questioning will be less intense. Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said they would take the postseason as "a good move forward," and as well they might with the Oilers finally making it out of the first round. McDavid and Draisaitl had playoff performances for the ages, with 33 and 32 points in 16 games respectively. And if there's any upside to being swept, it would be no longer having to watch Draisaitl grind his ankle into fine carbon powder or Darnell Nurse fight through a torn hip flexor, and hear either be lauded for playing through pain.
As for the Avalanche—well, they're the Avalanche. If there's any knock against their postseason record so far, it's that they've faced injured teams and backup goalies and also Mike Smith. But you can't control who you play, and I had to reach pretty deep to find those knocks. They're a juggernaut, they're 12-2 in the postseason, and they just swept the Western Conference Final without breaking a sweat. Anything short of a Cup would be a shocker.