- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
The Colorado Avalanche have a commanding 2-0 series lead over the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals, and look every bit like a powerhouse team ready to reach a Stanley Cup Final.
Meanwhile, the Oilers are limping home to Edmonton for Games 3 and 4 with more questions than answers on how to slow Colorado’s attack and get back in the series.
Here’s some of what we’ve learned so far and what it could mean for the games ahead.
Oilers in an uphill climb
Edmonton’s got a tough road ahead.
Being down 2-0 in a series against any team is hard to come back from. When that team is of Colorado’s caliber, the assignment is downright daunting.
In Game 1, the Oilers appeared capable of matching the Avalanche goal for goal (and nearly did). In Game 2, the Oilers appeared more outmatched. It was Colorado dictating the pace of play, creating chances off the rush, rolling behind the Oilers’ defense and entering the offensive zone practically at will.
Serious adjustments will be needed ahead of Game 3, when Edmonton will at least be back on home ice. Is that where the Oilers can begin mounting a comeback?
They certainly have the talent (see: Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl et al). And, if there’s a positive to take from Game 2, it’s that Mike Smith appears back on point.
Edmonton coach Jay Woodcroft tapped Smith for Game 2 after pulling him midway through Game 1 for allowing six goals. Smith was terrific for the Oilers in Game 2 and gave his team every chance to stay in the game. The Oilers couldn’t do anything with the opportunity.
Even McDavid admitted after Game 2 that he probably hasn’t been at the top of his game in this series. Edmonton better hope that’s true, and that there’s more magic still to come from its captain.
The star, Cale Makar
It’s not enough to say that Makar is a Norris Trophy-caliber defender (which he is) or one of the brightest blueliners in the league (again, true). It’s not just that he’s excellent. It’s how Makar carries himself that’s also impressive. He’s confident but humble, poised but daring, smart and skillful. And Makar has needed every one of those assets to be at the forefront of Colorado’s defense against McDavid & Co. That’s hardly a job for one man, but Makar has been the Avalanche’s first line of defense. The way he handled a potential breakaway for McDavid in the first period of Game 2 was textbook. Makar is also a master at joining the rush and recognizing when to hold back.
The magnitude of this conference finals moment or who Makar is matched up against hasn’t appeared to faze the 23-year-old at all. At that young age, Makar is scripting a brilliant reputation through each game of these playoffs. In the first two games of this series we might have seen his best so far.
Oilers haunted by starts
Edmonton loves a third-period comeback. It’s less enamored with early leads, or — as the cliché goes — starting on time.
Even the Oilers struggle to account for why their starts aren’t consistently better. Game 1 could have had a different outcome if Edmonton had capitalized on Evander Kane’s ice-breaking goal instead of allowing one 36 seconds later to J.T. Compher. Finding themselves in a 7-3 hole by the second period was backbreaking, no matter how much mettle the Oilers displayed in their third-period push.
In Game 2, it was Smith holding the Oilers in early as Colorado dictated the pace with its potent offensive attack. Edmonton had few answers for the oncoming Avalanche, who pummeled them off the rush and made the Oilers look repeatedly flat-footed. They were lucky to escape that period with the game 0-0.
This is Edmonton’s third playoff series, and it was the third time the Oilers faced a multiple-goal deficit in a Game 1 loss. It was the fifth time in the postseason they’ve been down by two or more goals to start. It’s a problem everyone can identify, with no real solutions on how to fix it. The Oilers seem content almost to wait for the urgency to kick in and then close the gap. That strategy has worked before. It might work again. But Edmonton’s playing with fire too often, and it could also lead to getting burned.
Kuemper concern? Frankie says, relax
Jared Bednar has been cagey discussing Darcy Kuemper’s upper-body injury and how long it might keep the Avalanche’s starter out.
But Colorado’s coach was clear on his belief in Pavel Francouz to get the job done in Kuemper’s absence. In Game 2, Francouz showed why with the second shutout of his postseason career.
He was locked-in facing Edmonton’s top scorers, tracking the puck well through traffic and remaining positionally solid. Francouz did catch a break on one miscue, playing a puck directly onto an Oiler stick that required a frantic save halfway between his net and the blue line. He also levied a key poke check on Darnell Nurse in the second, showing another flair for the dramatic in challenging the Oilers’ top performers.
The Avs made it easier on Francouz by building a lead in Game 2 and generally keeping the puck away from his net. But it was still a good sign for Colorado that Francouz was able to weather the storms early on in a 24-save performance. The club’s goaltending should be solid no matter how long Kuemper remains out.
Colorado’s depth shows off
Eventually, Mikko Rantanen was going to find his scoring touch.
Unfortunately for Edmonton, that time has come.
Rantanen had a 36-goal regular season but had registered just one tally in the Avalanche’s first 10 playoff games, an empty-netter in a 6-3 victory over St. Louis in the second round. He’d been a successful playmaker (notching 10 assists), but lighting the lamp was tough.
Rantanen has two goals in as many games of this series. His chemistry with Nazem Kadri has been on full display, and Rantanen looks like a player who’s found his groove. And that’s one more weapon firing for the Avalanche to rely on.
Another player showing real confidence? Artturi Lehkonen.
He had the first goal of Game 2, but Lehkonen’s contributions go beyond the scoresheet. The trade-deadline acquisition is great defensively, forechecks hard and is just a reliable presence everywhere on the ice.
This series features some superstar headliners. However, Colorado is showing why it’s such a dangerous team in the way its different players can step up and add to the mix at any time.
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