The Edmonton Oilers felt pretty good about Thursday’s first period.
After getting their doors blown off in the opening 20 minutes of an eventual 8-6 loss in Game 1 of the Western Conference final two nights earlier, the group had managed to weather another ferocious Colorado Avalanche attack that included a long two-man advantage.
Heading to the intermission 0-0 represented a victory for the visitors.
Two disastrous minutes early in the second undid all those good vibes to send the Oilers home in a big hole — and searching for answers.
Nazem Kadri set up three goals in quick succession and Pavel Francouz made 24 saves in place of the injured Darcy Kuemper for his first playoff shutout as Colorado blanked Edmonton 4-0 to take a 2-0 lead in the teams’ third-round series and move two wins from a berth in the Stanley Cup final.
“It was a really competitive first period,” Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft said. “We laid it on the line, especially finding ourselves short-handed. We pushed back, we generated some offence.
“That little span in the second period really hurt us, took the wind out of our sails. We weren’t able to generate.”
Edmonton stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who entered with a combined 57 points in the post-season, were unable to find the time and space afforded them by the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames in Edmonton’s first two series.
“Probably haven’t been at the top of my game,” said McDavid, who had a goal and two assists Tuesday.
“We haven’t had a ton of chances off the rush. We’ve got to find a way to create off the forecheck.”
— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) June 3, 2022
Mikko Rantanen and Artturi Lehkonen, with a goal and an assist each, and Josh Manson scored for the Avalanche during that furious push. Nathan MacKinnon added a power-play goal with under five minutes to go in regulation to seal a victory that never seemed in doubt after the second-period deluge.
“We wanted to turn it up a notch,” Kadri said of Colorado’s commitment to defence. “We understood that last game probably wasn’t sustainable for the whole series. Obviously, they’re a high-octane team.
The raucous crowd at Ball Arena chanted Francouz’s name as the seconds ticked down to salute a player who has a strong bond with fans in the Mile High City.
“Special feeling,” said the 31-year-old. “Tough to describe. It was a special night.”
Mike Smith stopped 35 shots for Edmonton, which had scored 31 goals in its last six contests, after getting pulled in the opener.
The best-of-seven matchup now shifts to the Alberta capital for Games 3 and 4 on Saturday and Monday.
“We’ve been a real solid home team for the last little while,” McDavid said. “We love playing in front of those fans.
“We’ll get ourselves back in this series back at home.”
Following Tuesday’s crazy curtain-raiser that saw all four netminders see action, the most goals in a conference final game in 37 years and a controversial offside review, the teams played that spirited and even first before the home side exploded.
Lehkonen put the Avalanche in front at 3:58 of the second when he tipped Kadri’s shot for his fifth goal of the post-season after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci conspired to fumble the puck away in the defensive zone.
The raucous crowd barely had a chance to catch its breath when Manson blasted his second of the post-season just 15 seconds later off a Kadri feed following a soft play from Nurse, who missed the last four games of the regular season with an undisclosed injury, that led to another turnover.
“They found a way to break through,” McDavid said when asked to explain what happened in the middle period.
Woodcroft called timeout in an effort to stop the bleeding, but Rantanen continued the onslaught with his third at 6:02 on a 2-on-1 by finishing off another Kadri feed with Nurse as the only defender back.
“He’s giving us everything he has … a true warrior,” Woodcroft said after his top defenceman was a minus-3 in a 124-second span. “As a team we can be better.”
Colorado, meanwhile, is a team loaded with speed and skill that feasts on momentum.
And the Oilers — no slouches in those categories themselves — so far haven’t had an answer when the Avalanche start moving downhill.
“They find ways to compound one (goal) and turn it into three,” McDavid said. “It’s on us to grab that. It seems like shifts after goals — either for or against — have hurt us over the last couple of games.
“They find a way to score right after.”
The shell-shocked Oilers tried to respond as the second period wore on, but Francouz was there to shut the door, including on a Draisaitl power-play chance.
Nurse then had an opportunity to make it 3-1 when the seas parted only to have the puck poked off his stick at the crucial moment by the Colorado backup, who played the second half of Game 1 after Kuemper exited with an upper-body injury.
Also pressed into service during Colorado’s four-game sweep of the Nashville Predators in the first round after Kuemper took a stick to the eye, Francouz saw a McDavid shot rattle his mask early in the third.
“He knows the magnitude of it coming into a playoff series like this,” Colorado head coach Jared Bednar said of his goaltender. “He’s worked extremely hard to stay sharp.”
The home side continued to keep its foot on the gas in a dominant performance at both ends of the rink before MacKinnon scored his 10th on a power play with 4:40 left and Smith minus his catching glove after it was knocked off his left hand.
“We’ll go back to the drawing board,” Woodcroft said. “We’ll prepare to regroup and head home to friendly confines.”
“We’ll be ready to put forth our best effort in a big bounce-back in front of a crazy building,” Oilers defenceman Tyson Barrie added of Rogers Place. “We’re certainly not counting ourselves out.
“We’ve got a lot of hockey left to play.”
Woodcroft scrambled his top-6 forwards Thursday in hopes of spreading out his offensive options, including the splitting up of his two best players for the first time since the opening round of the playoffs.
McDavid skated with Zach Hyman and Evander Kane, while Draisaitl lined up with Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto, who exited with an upper-body injury following a high hit from Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog.
Much like in Game 1 when the Avalanche came at him in waves in building a 3-2 lead through 20 minutes, Smith was under fire early.
But unlike the opener, Edmonton’s 40-year-old netminder weathered the storm — at least for a time — as Smith stopped Devon Toews, Lehkonen and MacKinnon on a string of Avalanche opportunities.
After killing off the game’s first power play, the Oilers faced the daunting task of facing that 5-on-3 man advantage for 1:32, but Edmonton survived with Smith making another big stop on MacKinnon.
Jesse Puljujavri had two chances at the other end before Francouz had to scramble back to his crease on a Ceci shot from outside the blue line after he cleared a loose puck into the neutral zone.
Edmonton’s other highlight of the opening 20 minutes was a crunching McDavid hit on Andrew Cogliano before the wheels fell off in the second as the Avalanche flexed their muscles to send the Oilers north with plenty of questions ahead of Game 3.
“They do a lot of good things,” McDavid said. “We’ve got to find a way to figure them out.”
Because if they don’t — and fast — the Oilers’ first trip to the conference final since 2006 could be brief.
Joshua Clipperton, THE CANADIAN PRESS