DENVER — The NHL Western Conference Finals was billed as two superstar-laden, high-octane offensive powerhouses battling each other for a chance to play for the Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers have already managed to exceed even those high expectations.
In Game 1 of their best-of-seven series on Tuesday, the Oilers and Avalanche threw it back into the NHL, scoring the 1980s heyday in a back-and-forth where literally no lead was certain. A total of 14 goals and 84 shots resulted in an 8-6 win for Colorado and admittedly left everyone a little stunned.
“We score a goal, then we concede a goal the next shift,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said after Game 1. “You come up, we find a way to fight back in the last minute [first] Period, then we give up a goal immediately after a face-off. That’s a dangerous hockey team over there, we get that. [And] we can all get better.”
To recap, Evander Kane and JT Compher traded the first goals of the series 36 seconds apart in the first half and we were headed to the races. When Compher scored his second goal at 6:20 of the second, Colorado took a 6-3 lead and Edmonton goalie Mike Smith was drawn. It was 7-4 Avalanche entering the third, with Connor McDavid coming on the board, and the Oilers weren’t done yet. Derek Ryan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins closed the gap to 7-6 before Gabriel Landeskog’s empty net iced it up for Colorado.
All these goals made us need some time to think. Will the whole series play out like this, just an endless barrage of chances where the last team beats the keeper?
Is this level of production sustainable? Or even desirable?
History suggests that some stabilization is imminent. On the other hand, these teams are filled with cross-generational and up-and-coming talent who are determined to reach a cup final.
Can the Avs and Oilers pull through this? Here are some factors that speak for and against continuing the Western Conference attack:
For: Assess DNA
What did both Edmonton and Colorado do well in the regular season? score goals.
The Avalanche averaged the fourth most goals per game in the league (3.76); the Oilers had seventh place (3.48).
What did the two do to their standout success in the playoffs? score goals.
Colorado outperforms all playoff teams in this category (4.64); Edmonton is right behind at 4.46.
This season is all about emphasizing strengths, which means the likes of McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Leon Draisaitl will be piloting their respective ships. When they do, it’s all about fast-paced attacks with quick transitions that often end in a cheer.
Why change anything now?
“They really are a dangerous team,” said MacKinnon. “[McDavid and Draisaitl] looked fantastic as always but her depth was solid and we need to work with that better. I definitely have some things to clean up, but we’re glad we won.”
McDavid admitted the “run-and-gun feel” isn’t always the preferred method, but it’s one the Oilers excel at, as evidenced by the comeback they nearly completed Tuesday.
“[The Avalanche are] a really good team,” he said. “If you give them chances, they will prevail and they will score. We have to defend ourselves. At the same time, we found a way to get six [goals].”
And let’s not forget the numbers produced in the postseason by the best players in this series. McDavid has 29 points, Draisaitl is at 28, Makar has 16 and MacKinnon has 15. It’s otherworldly stuff. Offensive success is why these teams are here – in large part – in the first place.
Against: The coach knows best
It’s not that Colorado coach Jared Bednar didn’t like what he saw in Game 1. He’s just not convinced that’s the recipe for long-term success. Not without some strong defense upgrades.
“You’re not going to win many playoff games if you give up six or seven [goals]’ he said on Wednesday. “Adjustments are being made and I would expect it to tighten. Of course I look at the goals and goal chances that we missed. Whenever you miss a scoring opportunity, a mistake happens. It is really that easy.”
Woodcroft can only agree. He played on Edmonton’s many defensive-zone mistakes, which Colorado used to extend their lead. The Oilers can’t count on even wilder rallies to save them.
“We don’t feel like we performed at the level that we know we can perform,” Woodcroft said. “There are things we need to clean up. We found a way to fight back but we fell way behind early on. That doesn’t make us a success. Our execution and attention to detail in our review and in our fundamental defensive capabilities can improve .”
That’s a message the Oilers sounded ready to hear.
“I don’t think we played well enough defensively,” said Cody Ceci. “But we showed a lot of character trying to make it a close game. We had some chances late on but we gave up way too many goals to win that game.”
Because: There is fold chaos
The series is a game old. All four goalkeepers have already been deployed.
And none of the coaches could (or wanted to) commit to their Game 2 starters on Wednesday.
How’s that for stability?
Smith came out midway through the second half in Game 1 after allowing six goals on 25 shots (0.760 percent saving throw). Mikko Koskinen played well from there, stopping 20 of 21 shots (.952) as the Oilers desperately fought back.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper retired in the second half with an upper-body injury and would not return. He finished the night with 13 saves (.813). Backup Pavel Francouz fared slightly better, filling in with a performance of 18 saves (.857).
Bednar would just say “we’ll see” when asked about Kuemper’s Game 2 availability. The severity of the injury will determine this.
Woodcroft would not line up behind Smith officiating, telling reporters the team will “determine Mike’s status and Mikko’s status [Thursday].”
Was that a joke? Maybe. Still, it wasn’t a ringing endorsement of the Oilers’ goalie situation. Smith vacillated between brilliant and amazing in the postseason, holding Edmonton in games with excellent saves and then licking goals at the worst times. Can he continue to keep his team’s trust?
The series could become a battle of backups. Would that further open the floodgates of the offensive? Koskinen has yet to start a single playoff game, and Francouz has just one under his belt from Colorado’s first-round win over Nashville.
It’s an equation that favors the scorers.
Against: Recent history says it cannot last
There’s nothing quite like what Colorado and Edmonton did in Game 1.
Since 2006, the most goals scored in a single Western Conference finals game has been the 10 scored by Vancouver and San Jose in Game 2 in 2011. And since 2006, no team had scored more than seven goals in a game until the Avalanche did on Tuesday.
Maybe this series really is just different. However, it was only one night and years of past results suggest the score is unsustainable.
Historically, conference finals have not had large swings in offensive dynamics. The streak that started goals-heavy (like the West in 2019, when St. Louis and San Jose scored 24 goals in their first three games) has tended to see that rejuvenation (just 14 goals between those clubs in the next three games ). ).
More often it was the opposite scenario, with few goals scored in the early stages (the average number of goals scored in a game 1 since 2006 is four). Goals begin to increase as the streak continues and the urgency increases (or perhaps when fatigue sets in).
The Avalanche and the Oilers each showed their hands in Game 1. They had fun skating up and down the ice and scoring at will. However, the prospect of this being a one-off ad is real.
For: Deep Attacks
Colorado and Edmonton are more than just their top lines.
Game 1 proved that.
The Oilers’ second and third units made significant contributions to the scoring charts, with McLeod’s timely reaction in the second half and Ryan’s first postseason tally early in the third setting the tone for Edmonton’s push.
Compher and Cogliano played a similar role for Colorado with goals that proved crucial when the final buzzer sounded.
These lineups also have impressive versatility. The players find their groove.
Woodcroft was able to trade Kane for Hyman (whose nine postseason goals surpass McDavid’s eight) in the Oilers’ first unit if needed. Nugent-Hopkins has scored in two of his last three games after being ruled out since Game 3 of Round 1. And Woodcroft noted Jesse Puljujarvi’s improved game on Wednesday.
On a positive note for Colorado (and extremely negative for Edmonton) is that Rantanen is finally rolling. He was a snakebite in the playoffs, scoring just one clean goal before lighting the lamp in Game 1. If that’s a sign the winger, who has scored 36 goals in the regular season, is yet to come, beware.
These teams could well go over 14 goals in one night.
On the other hand: fun watching, not playing
Fans love watching a high score hockey game.
Playing in one, however, is a different experience, especially this late in the playoffs. Although Game 1 ended in Colorado’s favour, the prevailing mood afterwards was surprisingly somber.
“We gave them a lot of options that we haven’t even given up in the last two series,” Makar said. “They have a lot of experienced players and we have to tag those guys. Definitely not the way you want to play with these guys. We can be better defensively and it’s obviously difficult when the game starts [like that].”
A roller coaster ride full of emotions in the game could be exciting in February. Not so much in June. The coaches no doubt preached good defensive habits that went into Game 1 and these were not flaunted. When players realize that, and how quickly that shot at a trophy can vanish, some kind of change feels inevitable.
“We weren’t happy with the position where we were three goals down and we don’t want to be where we are [again]’ said Nugent Hopkins. “There are certain things that we’re going to go through that we haven’t done well enough and that we need to correct.”
Getting that buy-in – for Edmonton or Colorado – could change the complexion of this series in a hurry.
On the other hand, would it just mean fewer goals scored overall? Or increase the potential for lopsided wins as one offense heats up over the other?
If Game 1 taught us anything, it’s that pretty much anything is possible in this series.