The Oilers Bailed Themselves Out Of Loser Jail
12:57 PM EDT on April 24, 2023
The Edmonton Oilers have looked like two entirely different teams from period to period in their series against the Kings, and in the first 20 minutes of Game 4 they were the one that forgot to pick up a goalie or a defense when they were shopping at The Hockey Store. The Kings, arriving with momentum after an overtime victory in their first playoff home game, burned the Oilers thrice for a 3-0 lead at the end of one. Gabriel Vilardi scored at the end of what was almost a hook-and-ladder play developed from behind the Kings' own net; Viktor Arvidsson produced a gorgeous spin and finish on another sequence that used the entirety of the ice; then Anže Kopitar stepped out of the time machine and into a power play where he undressed Stuart Skinner and electrified the audience. (Edmonton's rookie goalie was unplugged and replaced with Jack Campbell starting in the second.)
This was bad news for the Oilers, who spent the first intermission staring down a 3-1 series deficit and a reputation as a bunch of fluff that can't handle the intensity of a best-of-seven. But regardless of score or situation, Edmonton remains the team that has Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, and those two superstars can still help an otherwise ineffective bunch slip out of tight spots.
The key to these Oilers is their power play. They were by far the most effective team in the league with the man advantage this season, and over the past four years they've been at worst top three. The overwhelming talent they can ice in their most prominent forward slots makes a typical Edmonton 5-on-4 feel as lopsided as an even-strength setup against an AHL team. But in the postseason, where the officiating is generally more lax and usually more concerned with evenness than fairness, those power play opportunities don't come quite as often as they'd like. The Oilers got only two such chances in regulation on Sunday, both in the second period, but they made the Kings pay for those penalties. Alex Edler went to the box and set up a flurry of chances that ended when Evan Bouchard, given acres of space because McDavid and Draisaitl were hanging in opposite circles, blasted a slap shot through everything but the net.
A strong forecheck that heavily featured Connor led to a turnover and a Draisaitl goal that made it 3-2, and then on the next power play, after Kevin Fiala got whistled for tripping Draisaitl, the übermensch tallied his second of the game and fifth of the series by parking himself in dangerous territory and waiting for some crisp passing to unlock his chance. (Fun fact: Leon's been on the ice for every Oilers goal all series.)
Another back-to-front Kings breakout saddled Campbell with his one goal allowed in an otherwise sparkling fill-in performance. But the Oilers stayed engaged and tied it at four with just three minutes to go. The trio of forwards out for this equalizer—McDavid, Draisaitl, and Evander Kane—was good for a combined 1.82 goals per game this year, and a sweet zone entry by McDavid coupled with an accurate shot by Kane proves that, for all the randomness of the NHL playoffs, sometimes top talent alone can get you what you need.
However, that randomness can come back with a vengeance when the score is tied after 60. Heading into Game 4, for all their scoring prowess, the Oilers had somehow lost 10 of their last 11 playoff overtime games. And when Edmonton whiffed on a power play chance in OT, the Kings had to gain a dose of confidence. But Zach Hyman, a secondary forward in Toronto who's evolved into critical support in Alberta, ended the game with a goal that echoed the long-distance strategy Los Angeles has used to so much success. Bouchard managed to send a clean pass from his own goal to the opposite blue line, and Hyman, who was almost hiding along the boards, took the puck in nearly unchallenged and shot through Joonas Korpisalo for the finale.
The was a fun game but also an destabilized one, and not the kind the Oilers want to replicate. (3-0 deficits usually lead to losses, believe it or not.) Unfortunately for Edmonton, instability is just part of the package. They can have ridiculous high-scoring back-and-forths in the postseason, but they cannot win a dull one. In 20 playoff games dating back to last year, the Oilers have gotten the win just once when they've scored fewer than four goals. That's a testament to their ongoing failure to stop pucks. But the fact that they made it to the final four last year, and have evened this series, also outlines the way these Oilers can be special. You never want to get in these early holes in the first place, but at least with Edmonton, there's always a chance for their scorers to dig their way out.