The Little Oilers Finally Stepped Up
1:19 PM EDT on May 11, 2023
I know it sounds condescending to say most of Edmonton's roster is made of harmless little guys, but in the massive shadow of titans like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, what else could anybody be? The relative weakness of Everybody Else is what defined the first three games of the Oilers' second-round series, as the Golden Knights took a 2-1 lead because their whole group outplayed Edmonton's top two. In Game 1, Draisaitl scored four times and the Oilers lost 6-4. In Game 2, it was two goals each from Draisaitl and McDavid that lifted the team to a 5-1 win. And in Game 3, neither of them scored, and Edmonton lost 5-1.
Again, neither Leon nor Connor found the net in Game 4. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. But Edmonton played their most critical and complete team game of the season to win 4-1, knot this series at two, and send Vegas back to the desert with steam coming out of their ears.
The opening salvo was a gritty-ass goal from the Arizona deadline pickup Nick Bjugstad, with help from inexperienced Russian import Klim Kostin. As the Knights made an ordinary start from the back of their own zone, Bjugstad skated in seemingly out of nowhere to trouble Shea Theodore and force a turnover. Kostin was in the vicinity to take a quick shot, and Bjugstad corralled the miss for a wraparound before Adin Hill could meet him on the other side.
The goal was indicative of the unusual fire shown by Edmonton's depth fellas in this one. In the stat that to me has been the Rosetta Stone of the series, the Oilers outchanced the Knights 13 to four in the 18:24 of 5-on-5 without their best pair of skaters on the ice, after losing that battle five to 13 in the 5-1 loss their last time out.
McSaitl still offered a tremendous lift on Wednesday, but on this night they did so in a different way than usual. At 5-on-5, after playing the majority of their minutes together in the first three games of this series, McDavid and Draisaitl only soaked up 60 seconds as a package deal and otherwise got about 10 minutes each of even-strength ice time with separate lines. Based on the initial results, this move from Jay Woodcroft was long overdue, as each man managed to tilt the ice by their lonesome, essentially doubling the time the Oilers could control play.
Instead of carrying their teammates, Connor and Leon elevated them. Evan Bouchard, whose banging slap shot has become a blue-line presence during Oiler power plays, was left wide open with the man advantage in large part because the scariest guys were haunting the net. He took a feed from McDavid to make the score 2-0 less than a minute after the Bjugstad breakthrough.
There was a spark to the Oilers offense, but also a breadth. They did a stellar job making passes within the offensive zone, stretching the Golden Knights defense into one direction and then another and then exploiting the seam that developed. That's a credit to the gravity of their stars, but the goals wouldn't have come if other people hadn't finished the job, like Bouchard above, or Mattias Ekholm off a Draisaitl pass to extend the lead to three, or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins from a frenzied sequence that made the third period irrelevant. Neither of the latter two had scored in the playoffs before Wednesday.
The Knights were pissed about their performance, and Alex Pietrangelo hid it the worst. In an antisocial choice that's sure to have reverberations through at least the next game, he pretended Draisaitl's wrists were firewood and his stick was an ax. (Obviously, this dirtbaggery led to some last-minute fighting.)
"We just gotta play our game" is a phrase you hear ad nauseam in NHL locker rooms, but with the tiny margin for error in the playoffs, it's imperative that teams have alternate paths to victory when Plan A inevitably dissolves. The Oilers' game this year was to get into high-scoring back-and-forths and trust that their omnipotent power play would pile on more than their mediocre fortifications could let through. In a 2-1 series hole, however, Edmonton moved to spread the wealth and limit the total number of shifts where they were overmatched on talent. The next part of that equation is to actually get the balanced scoring, and this time out, they did. Vegas should and will continue to dare the Oilers to beat them on those terms.