Outside of the opening forty minutes of last night’s tilt being much more of a back-and-forth than anyone could have imagined, the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings first round series opener went according to plan. While the result wasn’t what fans in these parts were hoping for, it was a dose of reality for what to expect from this match-up…a much closer series than many had envisioned.
As mentioned in this spot just a couple of days ago, the Kings will go as far as Anže Kopitar, Phillip Danault and Jonathan Quick can take them. Yes, it was only one game and there is still a ton of hockey to be played in this series but the aforementioned trio wasted little time quieting those who felt their team had no chance against a red-hot Oilers side.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl got theirs but the Kings duo answered with a heck of a performance of their own and Quick was better than Mike Smith. From a Los Angeles standpoint, it really is that simple and now it’s up to Jay Woodcroft to figure this out. By no means were the Oilers poor but now only one thing matters, ensuring they go back to Los Angeles even at a game each.
Despite an ill-timed blunder that ultimately cost his team the opener, Smith will be back in the net come tomorrow night. However, you can bet the leash will be short. If that mistake leads to some kind of collateral damage, be it a loss of confidence or slip in performance, Mikko Koskinen will be brought in to try and right the ship. Like it or not, this is how the Oilers netminding situation works.
So outside of goaltending, where else can Woodcroft look to for improvement? Their special teams were excellent, two power-play goals and a perfect four-for-four on the penalty kill. On the physicality front, the Oilers gave as much as they received and did not appear to be overmatched, which has been an issue at certain points in previous playoff series.
Edmonton’s struggles actually came in the area they’ve excelled most at since deciding to move on from Dave Tippett. Even strength scoring has become this group’s calling-card since Woodcroft arrived but with the performances we saw from Kopitar and Danault, that advantage evaporated into thin air. In order for this to work, the Oilers “others” are going to have to find a way to get on the scoresheet.
After being on the ice for both of the Kings first period goals, the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line had two periods to try and at least get one of those back but couldn’t make anything happen. In order for a team to enjoy playoff success, your bottom six has to at least be able to saw-off the opposition or you tend to end up with the result the Oilers got last night. Fair or not, it’s how this works and the expectation.
Where the head coach lost some, myself included, was his usage of Jesse Puljujarvi. Unless there was an illness or injury, something we still don’t know as none of the local media felt it was a question worth asking during the post-game presser, it was a perplexing decision from Woodcroft. To start the talented Finn on the top line and then play him just over two minutes in the opening frame was a head scratcher.
Obviously, swapping Kailer Yamamoto onto the McDavid line and elevating Ryan McLeod was his preference, which is all good. My question is, how and why are you making that decision after a handful of shifts and then go on to give your apparent top line right winger all of 7:52 of ice-time, the lowest total of any Oilers skater, in the first game of the playoffs?
Since taking over behind the bench, Woodcroft hasn’t had many missteps but this could be one. Again, going on the assumption there was no illness or injury, not sure how playing every single forward more than Puljujarvi makes this team better. In my mind, it screams panic move and hopefully that wasn’t the case because if it was, the Oilers could be in trouble but we’ll leave it for now.
Point being, there are areas in which Edmonton can improve upon what we saw from the collective. With that said, expecting the Los Angeles Kings to help them along would be mistake. It isn’t going to happen and the Oilers will need to either limit or completely remove the five-star brain cramps from their playbook. Do that and they should be fine.