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Avalanche down Oilers 8-6 in a wild Game 1 to open Western Conference final


10 minute read

By Joshua Clipperton in Denver

The Oilers have seen this script play out before.

This opponent, however, is a different beast.

And if Edmonton doesn’t solve its defensive issues, the Western Conference final could be over quick.

Cale Makar had a goal and two assists Tuesday as the high-flying Colorado Avalanche dominated early and hung on late to defeat the Oilers 8-6 in a wild Game 1.

Much like the opener of Edmonton’s second-round series — an equally frantic 9-6 loss to the Calgary Flames before the team rebounded with four straight victories to advance — there were mistakes left and right for a group that’s prided itself on structure since interim head coach Jay Woodcroft took over in February.

Sure, the Oilers battled back from a 7-3 deficit to get within a goal in the final minute, but the type of effort on display at Ball Arena won’t be nearly good enough for a franchise looking to book its first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2006.

“Similar to the last series, ultimately,” said Edmonton captain Connor McDavid, who finished with a goal and two assists to give him an NHL-best 29 points in the playoffs. “We just weren’t good enough from the start.”

J.T. Compher scored twice for Colorado, while Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen added an goal and an assist each. Andrew Cogliano and Gabriel Landeskog, into an empty net, also connected, while Devon Toews added two assists.

“It’s tough when everything starts to open up like that,” Makar said. “We’re getting scoring chances (and) capitalizing.

“They’re doing the same.”

Darcy Kuemper made 13 saves before suffering an upper-body injury in the second period. Avalanche backup Pavel Francouz finished with 18 stops.

“I liked our checking game for the most part,” said Colorado head coach Jared Bednar, who didn’t have an update on Kuemper. “It felt like when we made mistakes they capitalized on them.”

Evander Kane and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, with a goal and an assist each, Zach Hyman, Ryan McLeod and Derek Ryan also scored for Edmonton. Leon Draisaitl chipped in with two assists.

“Score six goals in a game you should win the game,” Woodcroft said. “We know we have to be better. And we will be.”

“A lot of stuff that we can clean up,” McDavid added. “A lot of stuff that was self-inflicted.”

Mike Smith allowed six goals on 25 shots until getting the hook in the second. Mikko Koskinen made 20 stops the rest of the way.

“Obviously, we don’t like Game 1s,” said Smith, whose team also fell behind 1-0 to the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round. “We’re a resilient group that doesn’t just roll over and die. That’s an encouraging part.”

“We stuck with it,” Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse said. “But you give up seven — empty netter, eight — it’s tough to win.”

MacKinnon and McDavid grabbed the headlines coming into this talent-loaded series.

The opener of the teams’ third playoff meeting all-time, and first since 1998, didn’t disappoint with a lightning-quick pace, jaw-dropping sequences and a controversial video review.

Edmonton — no slouches when it comes to skating — just needs to find a way to slow down the Avalanche’s ferocious attack.

That might be easier said that done.

“We obviously have to change something,” Draisaitl said. “We can’t be giving up that many goals.

“That’s the second time this has happened. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to go right off the bat.”

The Oilers are in the third round for the first time since 2006 — when they lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final — after defeating Calgary in the first post-season Battle of Alberta in 31 years.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, finally got over a significant hump by making it to the NHL’s final four following three straight second-round exits thanks to their defeat of the St. Louis Blues.

After falling behind by a combined 5-0 score line in the first periods of their previous Game 1s losses, the Oilers opened the scoring just over five minutes into Tuesday when Kane scored his 13th goal in 13 playoff games.

The lead, however, lasted all of 36 seconds as Compher, who scored twice in Colorado’s Game 6 victory to clinch the series against St. Louis, finished off a 2-on-1 for his third.

The conference’s top seed continued to flex its muscles with shift after dominant shift as the period wore on before MacKinnon beat Smith on a breakaway for his ninth at 15:10.

The Oilers woke up late in the first, with Hyman banging home his ninth, and seventh in his last six games, with 22.8 seconds left in the period.

It looked like Edmonton would escape tied, but the visitors switched off when play resumed. Makar jumped on a turnover in the neutral zone and wired his fourth with 13.8 seconds remaining.

Woodcroft challenged for offside, which appeared to be the case at first glance, but the goal stood after video review.

The NHL’s situation room determined Colorado winger Valeri Nichushkin “legally tagged up at the blue line before (Makar) entered the offensive zone with the puck on his stick.”

The league added in its explanation that “Makar made contact with the puck in the offensive zone after Nichushkin was in an onside position.”

“We felt the player had control of the puck, didn’t know there was an offside player,” Woodcroft said. “We thought it was the right move to challenge that call, didn’t go our way. That stuff happens.”

The beneficiary of a hotly debated video review in its series-clincher against Calgary, Edmonton was assessed a penalty for delay of game for the failed challenge, and Kadri made the Oilers pay 32 seconds into the second period with his sixth.

“We didn’t like what we gave up,” Woodcroft said. “Those are all things within our control.

“Bottom line is, to a man, we can all be better.”

Kuemper gave Edmonton life when he spilled a shot for McCleod to bang in his second at 2:59 to make it 4-3.

The Avalanche goaltender redeemed himself moments later on a Zack Kassian breakaway to set the stage for Rantanen to snipe his second at 4:38.

Colorado then went up 6-3 at 6:20 when Compher tipped home his second of the night.

That was it for Smith, while Kuemper was forced from the game with his upper-body injury shortly thereafter.

“On the bench halfway through the game, it’s not a good sign,” Smith said. “I’ve been in this position before.

“You park it.”

Cogliano scored his second of the playoffs at 16:20 to push the lead to 7-3 — if proceedings weren’t already giving Oilers fans flashbacks to that 9-6 loss to Calgary, they were now — before McDavid got one back with his eighth just 31 seconds later off a Draisaitl feed.

Ryan got Edmonton to within two with his first at 3:28 of the third to make it 7-5 after Koskinen made a nice stop at the other end with Rantanen in home free.

“When you’re giving up touchdowns in the last two series in Game 1 … that’s not a good sign,” Smith said. “But I think it shows a lot of our team that when we’re down, we’re not out of the fight, and continue to battle right to the end.

“But lots to clean up.”

The Oilers got a power play with under nine minutes left in regulation, and Nugent-Hopkins scored his fifth with 7:24 remaining.

Edmonton continued a desperate late push with Koskinen on the bench for an extra attacker, but couldn’t find the equalizer before Landeskog scored his seventh into the empty net to cap a wild night that included 14 goals, four netminders, and plenty of drama.

They’ll do it again Thursday in Game 2.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2022.

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