DENVER — The NHL Western Conference finals were billed as two superstar-laden, high-octane offensive powerhouses going head-to-head for a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers already managed to surpass even those lofty expectations.
In Game 1 of their best-of-seven series Tuesday, the Oilers and Avalanche threw it back to the NHL’s roaring, scoring 1980s heyday in a back-and-forth affair in which literally no lead was safe. A combined 14 goals and 84 shots added up to an 8-6 win for Colorado, and admittedly left everyone a little stunned.
“We score a goal, then we give up a goal on the next shift,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft recounted after Game 1. “They go up, we find a way to claw back in the last minute of the [first] period, then we give up a goal immediately off a faceoff. That’s a dangerous hockey team over there, we understand that. [And] we can all be better.”
To recap: Evander Kane and J.T. Compher traded the series’ first goals 36 seconds apart in the first period and we were off to the races. When Compher scored his second goal, at 6:20 of the second, Colorado went up 6-3 and Edmonton goalie Mike Smith was pulled. It was 7-4 Avalanche entering the third, with Connor McDavid getting on the board, and the Oilers weren’t done. Derek Ryan and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins closed the gap to 7-6 before Gabriel Landeskog‘s empty-netter iced it for Colorado.
All that scoring left us needing some time to pause for reflection. Is this how the entire series will go, just an endless barrage of chances with the last team to beat the goalie winning?
Is that level of output sustainable? Or even desirable?
History suggests there’s some stabilization ahead. Then again, these teams are layered with generational and emerging talents determined to reach a Cup Final.
So, can the Avs and Oilers keep this up? Here are some factors for and against the Western Conference onslaught continuing:
For: Scoring 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 the seventh most (3.48).
What have they both done to excellent success in the playoffs? Score goals.
Colorado paces all playoff teams in that category (4.64); Edmonton is right behind at 4.46.
This time of year is about accentuating strengths, which means the likes of McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Leon Draisaitl are going to steer their respective ships. When they do, it’s all about fast-paced, quick-transition attacks often ending in a celebration.
Why change things now?
“They’re really a dangerous team,” MacKinnon said. “[McDavid and Draisaitl] looked amazing as always, but their depth was solid and we have to do a better job with that. Definitely have some things to clean up, but happy we got the win.”
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 real good team,” he said. “You give them chances, they’re going to bear down and score. We’ve got to defend. At the same time, we found a way to get six [goals].”
And let’s not forget the numbers being produced in the postseason by this series’ best players. McDavid has 29 points, Draisaitl is at 28, Makar has 16 and MacKinnon 15. It’s otherworldly stuff. Offensive success is why — in large part — these teams are here in the first place.
Against: 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 it’s the recipe for long-term success. Not without some heavy defensive improvements.
“You’re not going to win a lot of playoff games when you give up six or seven [goals],” he said Wednesday. “There will be adjustments made and I would expect it to tighten up. I certainly look at the goals and scoring chances that we gave up. Whenever you’re giving up a scoring chance, there’s a mistake. It’s really that simple.”
Woodcroft couldn’t agree more. He harped on Edmonton’s many defensive zone miscues, which Colorado used to build its lead. The Oilers can’t rely on more frenzied rallies to bail them out.
“We don’t feel that we executed at the level we know we can execute at,” Woodcroft said. “There are things we have to clean up. We found a way to fight our way back, but we got way behind early. That doesn’t set us up for success. Our execution and attention to detail with our checking and in our fundamental defensive skills can improve.”
That’s a message the Oilers sounded ready to hear.
“I don’t think we played well enough defensively,” Cody Ceci said. “But we showed a lot of character in trying to make it a close game. We had some chances late, but we gave up way too many goals to win that game.”
For: Crease chaos reigns
The series is one game old. All four goalies have already made an appearance.
And neither coach could (or would) commit on Wednesday to his starter for Game 2.
How’s that for stability?
Smith came out midway through the second period in Game 1 after allowing six goals on 25 shots (.760 save percentage). Mikko Koskinen played well from there, stopping 20 of 21 shots (.952) as the Oilers desperately fought their way back.
Meanwhile, Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper exited in the second period with an upper-body injury and would not return. He ended the night with 13 saves (.813). Backup Pavel Francouz fared slightly better, filling in with an 18-save performance (.857).
Bednar would say only “we’ll see” when asked about Kuemper’s availability for Game 2. The severity of the injury will determine that.
Woodcroft wouldn’t put his weight behind the incumbent Smith, telling reporters the team will “determine Mike’s status and Mikko’s status [Thursday].”
Was this gamesmanship? Maybe. But even so, it was not a ringing endorsement for the Oilers’ goalie situation. Smith has oscillated between brilliant and baffling in the postseason, holding Edmonton in games with superb saves, then leaking goals at the worst times. Can he continue to hold the confidence of his team?
The series could become a battle of the backups. Would that open the offensive floodgates further? Koskinen hasn’t started a single playoff game to date, and Francouz has only one under his belt from Colorado’s first-round sweep of Nashville.
It’s an equation that favors the goal scorers.
Against: Recent history says it can’t last
There’s no real comparable to what Colorado and Edmonton did in Game 1.
Since 2006, the most goals in a single Western Conference finals game were 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 it Tuesday.
Perhaps this series really is just different. It was only one night, though, and years of past outcomes suggest that level of scoring is not sustainable.
Historically, conference finals haven’t had major swings of offensive momentum. The series that started out goal-heavy (such as the West in 2019, when St. Louis and San Jose notched 24 goals through the first three games) tended to see that taper off (only 14 goals between those clubs in the next three games).
More often, it has been the opposite scenario, in which low scoring prevails in the early going (the average number of goals scored in a Game 1 since 2006 is four). The goals start rising as the series continues and the urgency increases (or perhaps as fatigue sets in).
The Avalanche and Oilers each showed their hand in Game 1. They had their fun driving up and down the ice and scoring at will. The prospect of that being a one-off display is real, though.
For: Deep attacks
Colorado and Edmonton are more than just their top lines.
Game 1 proved that.
The Oilers’ second and third units made key contributions on the scoresheet, with McLeod’s timely second-period response 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 pivotal when the final buzzer sounded.
These lineups have impressive versatility as well. Players are finding their groove.
Woodcroft has been able to swap Kane for Hyman (whose nine postseason goals outpace McDavid’s eight) on the Oilers’ first unit when necessary. Nugent-Hopkins has scored in two of his past three games after being shut out since Game 3 of the first round. And Woodcroft on Wednesday noted Jesse Puljujarvi‘s improved play.
On the plus side for Colorado (and extreme negative for Edmonton) is that Rantanen might finally be rolling. He’d been snakebit in the playoffs, scoring only one empty-net goal prior to lighting the lamp in Game 1. If that’s a sign of things to come for the winger who potted 36 goals in the regular season, look out.
These sides might well get past 14 goals one night.
Against: Fun to watch, not to play in
Fans love to watch a high-scoring hockey game.
Playing in one, though, especially this late in the playoffs, is a different experience. Even though Game 1 came out in Colorado’s favor, the prevailing mood afterward was surprisingly somber.
“We gave them a lot of options that we weren’t giving up these past two series, even,” Makar said. “They have a lot of skilled players and we need to mark those guys. Definitely not the way you want to play games with these guys. We can be better defensively, and it’s obviously tough when the game opens up [like that].”
A roller coaster of in-game emotion might be exciting in February. Not so much in June. Coaches undoubtedly preached good defensive habits going into Game 1 and those weren’t on display. When players recognize that and know how quickly this shot at a Cup can disappear, change of some sort feels inevitable.
“We weren’t happy with the position we were in being down three goals and we don’t want to be in that spot [again],” Nugent-Hopkins said. “There’s specific things that we will go through that we didn’t do well enough and have to correct.”
Getting that buy-in — for Edmonton or Colorado — could change the complexion of this series in a hurry.
Then again, would it just mean fewer total goals scored? Or increase the potential for lopsided victories as one offense heats up over the other?
If Game 1 taught us anything, it’s that just about anything is possible in this series.