Playoff hockey has returned to Rogers Place and it has not disappointed. The Edmonton Oil Kings and Medicine Hat Tigers have completed two games of their opening round playoff series and each game has gone right down to the final seconds.
In game one, the Oil Kings simply could not beat Tigers goalie Mads Sogaard. They peppered over 45 shots at the 6’7 Dane before finally getting one passed him. Their first goal of the game came with just 2:02 to go in the third period and it came off the stick of former Tiger Josh Williams, who was acquired at the trade deadline in a deal that saw Brett Kemp head south to Medicine Hat.
“It’s a little weird playing against your old team but no matter who you’re playing against you need to play hard,” said Williams after the game, adding that every goal in the playoff is huge, but this one was extra sweet.
The Williams goal seemed to spark the Oil Kings and they cranked up their offensive pressure a notch in the dying minutes, but it wasn’t enough to send the game to overtime as Mads Sogaard was simply too strong. With about 20 seconds left he robbed Trey Fix-Wolansky with the glove hand and then just seconds later slid across his crease to deny a Vince Loschiavo one-timer. Simply put: Sogaard was nearly unbeatable.
Aside from their goaltender being tremendous, the Tigers did excel in other areas. They did a great job getting into lanes and blocking shots. They also prevented the Oil Kings from getting a single dangerous odd-man rush. There wasn’t one breakaway or two-on-one that made you hold your breath. They played tight in their system and were rewarded for it.
From an Oil Kings perspective, they weren’t willing to just say this loss was because of a hot goalie at the other end of the rink. They knew there were areas they needed to be better.
“I didn’t think we gave him (Sogaard) enough difficult shots and we didn’t create enough second and third opportunities,” said Head Coach Brad Lauer.
I would add that generating a few more two-on-ones off the rush would go a long way. Sogaard is big, but when you get him moving around and thinking about passing options, you can open up holes.
Having your 11 game winning streak come to a halt in the first game of the playoffs is far from ideal, but to say the Oil Kings were in a deflated state after the opening loss on Saturday could not have been further from the truth.
“One of the most important things about us is our resiliency and ability to bounce back from a loss,” said Captain Trey Fix-Wolansky.
And bounceback is exactly what this team did the next night.
Despite the fact they didn’t get the same volume of shots as they did in game one, there’s no denying that the Oil Kings put forth a much better effort on Sunday night.
I talked about how they needed to get Sogaard moving and a good way to do that was by generating more odd-man rushes. They got one early in the game and capitalized on it as with just over two minutes gone in the first Jake Neighbours sent Josh Williams in on a two-on-one with Liam Keeler. Williams slid a pass to Keeler who promptly found the back of the net, quickly giving the Oil Kings the lead.
“That felt really good,” chuckled Liam Keeler after the game, adding how big it was to get on the board early.
One other thing that the team said after game one was that they had too many passengers. Tonight, they didn’t have that problem. All four lines were rolling tonight and the trio of Neighbours, Keeler, and Williams was particularly strong. They seemed to be hemming the Tigers in their own zone every time they were on the ice.
Despite the fact that they were playing a much better game and generating some great chances on Sogaard, a pair of powerplay goals from Tigers d-man Linus Nassen and a goal late in the second period from Brett Kemp had the Oil Kings trailing 3-2 heading into the third period.
Still, the team kept pushing and looked like the better team in the third period. They would be rewarded for their consistent offensive pressure with just over 12 minutes left in the period when Carter Souch rifled a puck over the glove-hand of Sogaard.
In the final five minutes, and the game seemingly destined for overtime, the Oil Kings found a hero.
Quinn Benjafield broke into the zone, walked into the slot, and fired a shot low blocker on Mads Sogaard, giving the Oil Kings a lead with under three minutes remaining. ‘QB-14’ as he’s been dubbed by Oil King’s play-by-play voice Andrew Peard, admitted after the game that low blocker was an area the team knew they could exploit on the Tigers goalie.
The team would hold onto their lead despite some late pressure from Medicine Hat and even the series at one. While it’s never ideal to drop a game on home ice, the Oil Kings were prepared for this to be a long series.
“We weren’t thinking this was going to be a four-game series. We expected it to be tight from the get-go,” said Brad Lauer.
They now head to Medicine Hat for games three and four and when I asked veteran forward and game two hero Quinn Benjafield if the team would change their approach as they begin the road portion of this series, he gave me a quick and stern answer:
“Nope. Sticking to the same system and same structure. Just doing what we do best.”
Game three goes Tuesday night from Medicine Hat with puck drop set for just after 7 pm.