The Colorado Avalanche lead 2-0 in the Edmonton Oilers Series in the Western Conference Finals, looking in every segment like a strong team ready to reach the Stanley Cup Final.
Meanwhile, the Oilers head home to Edmonton for Games 3 and 4 with more questions than answers about how to slow down the Colorado offensive and get back in the series.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far and what it could mean for the upcoming matches.
Oiled on uphill climb
In front of Edmonton is a tough road.
It’s hard to come back from a 2-0 loss in a series against any team. When this team is of Colorado caliber, the task is downright daunting.
In Game 1, Team Oilers appeared able to (and almost did) match Avalanche’s goal to goal. In Game 2, Oilers seemed to be more superior. It was the Colorado who dictated the pace of play, creating chances out of the rush, rolling behind the Oilers’ defense and entering the attack zone practically as he pleased.
Serious tweaks will be needed before Game 3, when Edmonton will at least get home. Is this where the Oilers could start to make a comeback?
They certainly have the talent (see: Conor McDavid, Leon Drysitl et al.). And if there’s one positive thing that can be gleaned from Game 2, it’s that Mike Smith came back on point.
Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft picked Smith for Game 2 after pulling him halfway through the first game to allow for six goals. Smith was great to the Oilers in Game 2 and gave his team every chance to stay in the game. The Oilers couldn’t have done anything with this opportunity.
Even McDavid admitted after the second game that he may not have been at his best in the series. Edmonton better hope that this is true, and that there is more magic to come from her captain.
It’s not enough to say that McCar is a defender of Norris Trophy caliber (and he is) or one of the brightest cheats in the league (again, right). It’s not just about being excellent. It’s the way Makar carries himself and that’s impressive too. He is self-confident yet humble and balanced yet bold, intelligent and skillful. And McCar needed each of these assets to be at the forefront of Colorado’s defense against McDavid & Co. The way he handled a potential breakup for McDavid in the early period of Game 2 was a textbook. Makar is also adept at joining the rush and knowing when to back off.
The magnitude of this conference finals moment or who will face Makar didn’t seem to bother the 23-year-old at all. At that young age, Makar was writing an impressive reputation through each of these playoffs. In the first two games of this series we probably saw his best so far.
Oilers haunted starters
Edmonton loves to come back in the third period. He is less impressed with early leads, or – as in the clichés – starting on time.
Even Oilers struggle to explain why their starts aren’t constantly improving. Game 1 could have had a different outcome if Edmonton had taken advantage of Evander Kane’s ice-breaking goal instead of allowing once after 36 seconds for JT Compher. Finding themselves on a 7-3 hole in the second half was a pain, no matter how much force the Oilers showed in their third inning push.
In Game 2, Smith held the Oilers early as Colorado dictated the pace of his powerful attack. Edmonton had few answers for the upcoming avalanche, which knocked them out of the rush and made the Oilers look two-footed again and again. They were lucky to escape that period with the 0-0 game.
This is Edmonton’s third playoff streak, and it was the third time the Oilers had faced a multi-goal deficit in a first game loss. This was the fifth time in the post-season that they had fallen by two goals or more at the start. It’s a problem that everyone can identify, with no real solutions to how to solve it. Oilers seem almost content to wait for the urgency to start working and then close the gap. This strategy has worked before. It may work again. But Edmonton plays with fire too much, and it might as well get him burned.
Kuemper worried? Frankie says, relax
Jared Bednar was cautious discussing Darcy Comber’s upper body injury and when he might keep the avalanche onset.
But the Colorado coach was clear about his belief that Pavel Francos would get the job done in Comber’s absence. In Game 2, Francos showed the reason for the second shutdown of his career after the season.
Locked up against Edmonton’s top scorer, he tracked the disc well through traffic and remained consistent in his position. Francoz got a break due to one foul, playing the puck straight onto Euler’s stick which required a massive save halfway between his net and the blue line. He also imposed a key poke check on the Darnell Nurse in the second, which showed another flair for the drama in challenging the Oilers’ top performers.
Avs made it easier for Francouz by building a progression in Game 2 and generally keeping the disc away from his network. But it was still a good sign for Colorado that Francos was able to hold out early with 24 saves. The club’s goalkeeper must be strong no matter how long Comper stays off the field.
Shows the depth of Colorado
In the end, Mikko Rantanen would have found his own scoring touch.
Unfortunately for Edmonton, that time has come.
Rantanen had 36 goals in the regular season, but scored only one tally in the first 10 playoffs in the avalanche, an empty record in the 6-3 win over St.Louis in the second round. He was a successful playmaker (10 assists), but lighting the lamp was difficult.
Rantanen has two goals in the most matches in this series. His harmony with Nazim Qadri is in full swing, and Rantanen looks like a player who has found his groove. This is another reliable weapon to shoot an avalanche.
Another player showing real confidence? Arturi Laconin.
He had the first goal in Game 2, but Lehkonen’s contributions exceeded the score. Capturing the trade deadline is great from a defensive standpoint, checks hard for risk and is just a reliable all-around presence on the ice.
This series features some notable stars. However, Colorado shows why it’s such a dangerous team with the way different players can progress and add to the mix at any time.