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NHL

The Avs Took The Oilers’ Best Punch

EDMONTON, ALBERTA - JUNE 04: Mikko Rantanen #96 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against Duncan Keith #2 of the Edmonton Oilers in the third period in Game Three of the Western Conference Final of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on June 04, 2022 in Edmonton, Alberta. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

“A series doesn’t start until a home team loses” is the silliest cliché in hockey, which is really saying something in the same sport that swears by the danger of the two-goal lead. For one, this means that the Hurricanes-Bruins first-round series still hasn’t started, which is going to play hell with scheduling. For another, it implies that many a series—like, say, Colorado-Edmonton in the Western Conference Final—doesn’t begin until the lower seed is already down 3-0. I suppose that series has now officially started, after the Avs’ brawny 4-2 road win Saturday night. And if the Oilers think it unfair that a series starts with them in an 0-3 hole, well, maybe they should have tried not being so much worse than the Avalanche. Something to consider!

“The desperation level has to be at an all-time high to win at this time of year,” said Oilers goalie Mike Smith. “It has to come from everybody in the room—just a little bit more.” Edmonton played with desperation in Game 3, often but not always inclusive of playing smart or clean, but it mostly worked: They jumped out to an absurdly early lead; they forechecked, backchecked, generally outchecked; they knocked a key Avs player out for the the series, however long it should go; Smith didn’t have his typical “at least once every 60 minutes I am going to do the dumbest thing a goalie could possibly do” moment. It wasn’t enough. Edmonton’s most complete game of the series just made for a slightly hairier Avs win.

It took 38 seconds, and it took Connor McDavid five seconds into his first shift, to give the Oilers their first lead since the first period of Game 1. It was a pretty little thing, and felt like it boded well, with Zach Hyman winning a puck battle definitively and the Colorado defense looking out of sorts and the Edmonton crowds in and outside the arena, so desirous of something to cheer for, losing their collective mind.

That’s the traditional recipe for a weaker team snatching a game at home: a juiced crowd and an early lead, even if it ultimately just ends in a gentleman’s sweep (five games). There was more reason to think this is where things were going just 30 seconds later, when Evander Kane checked Nazem Kadri headfirst into the boards. A visibly injured Kadri tried to play one more shift, then left for good.

Kadri appeared to be favoring his right hand or wrist. Whatever scans the Avs ran on it, they didn’t show good news. “He’ll be out for the series at least, if not longer,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said of Kadri. “It’s the most dangerous play in hockey. He puts him in headfirst from behind, eight feet off the boards. I’ll leave it at that.”

Kane was handed a boarding major, though not a game misconduct, as was within the officials’ rights; I’m not sure how that’ll affect potential DoPS discipline today. Player Safety (generally) makes a point of judging the hit and not the outcome, and that’s the line Kane tried to draw in his own defense, but I feel like there aren’t very many good outcomes from that sort of hit that distance from the boards. We’ll see.

In more immediate effects, the Avs were back on their heels. Just over a minute into the game and they were down a goal, they were down their second-line center (who is third in both goals and assists for them this postseason), and it really just did not look like their night. But they steadied, didn’t panic, and got some great luck on a messy own goal by Darnell Nurse and a fortuitous bounce to Valeri Nichushkin for his second of the game. Ryan McLeod would equalize for Edmonton with a nifty coast-to-coast snipe.

Then it was J.T. Compher’s turn to experience the agony and the ecstasy. Compher, a fifth-year man, has long been a big part of Colorado’s plans but injuries and the pandemic have made it hard for him to settle into any sort of consistency. This year, though, he recorded career highs across the board and has shown some punch in the playoffs, anchoring the third line and, heading into Sunday, recording six points in 12 games. I am not going to say Colorado “needs” more depth scoring, since they’ve won 11 of 13, but if it was going to come, the Avs expected it to come from Compher.

That was before Kadri’s injury; after it, Compher moved up to center the second line between Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen, and that’s where you figure he’ll stay for as long as Kadri is out. It’s a big responsibility, and Compher didn’t get off to a great start when he took a silly tripping penalty a little past the midway point of the third.

He would more than make up for it:

“Definitely a roller coaster—not a good time to take a penalty,” Compher said. “From the lowest in the box, waiting, and then able to get one—that’s the highest for sure.”

Rantanen would add an empty-netter, and the WCF looks over almost as soon as it began. This was Edmonton’s best shot at making it a series, and all they did was make the Avs work a little harder. The Oilers’ often hideous, often hilarious brand of hockey is no match for the Avalanche’s “boring and gross” skill and competence, as Nathan MacKinnon put it. I’m not sure which Edmonton is closer to the real one—the first-half underachievers or the second-half overachievers—but neither is in the same class as Colorado. Nor might be any other team in the league.