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Photo Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Backs Against the Wall

Gut-wrenching, soul-crushing, deflating. Call it what you want. That loss to Chicago was just ugly and now, the Oilers have to dig deep and find a way to even up this series. The good news for Oilers fans is that this series is entirely in their team’s control.

If we’re using the letter grade system, I gave the Oilers a ‘D’ for their dismal performance in game one. In game two, they improved but they still weren’t at their best. I gave them a ‘B’. In game three, I think they brought their ‘C’ game. We still have not seen the Oilers best and I firmly believe that if we see them bring their ‘A’ game, they will not lose this series.

It’s far from a guarantee that we see their ‘A’ game though and that’s the most frustrating part. This team has not shown up for a pair of huge playoff games in their own city. They have the ability to turn it around and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if we see them come through with a very convincing win, just like they did in 2017 against the Anaheim Ducks.

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McDavid and Draisaitl seem to play their best hockey when they’re a little pissed off and I think they’ll be really pissed off in Game 4. Here are some other thoughts I have as the Oilers face elimination for the first time:

  • I believe Tippett will go back to Smith for Game 4. Koskinen has been fine, but he hasn’t been at his best. I think that’s enough reason for Tippett to switch it up. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but I think that’s what going to happen. 
  • Smith is really boom or bust. I could see him coming in and playing lights out and I could also see him letting in a few soft goals early. It’s a risk putting him in, whereas starting Koskinen is probably the safer play.
  • It’s time to reunite the Nugent-Hopkins-Draisaitl-Yamamoto line. They were dynamite together and while I understand the idea of giving McDavid a better linemate, the duo hasn’t been great at even-strength. The Oilers need a spark at even-strength and I believe re-uniting the line that turned their season around in January can give it to them.
  • As for the top line, I would put McDavid with James Neal and Zack Kassian. I’ve been a fan of Neal’s game through three games. He forechecks hard and he has a good shot, I think that could work with McDavid. As for Kassian, he needed a wakeup call and I think putting him in the bottom six for two games will wake him up. You know he and McDavid have chemistry and putting them back together for a must-win game just makes sense.
  • I would also keep Andreas Athanasiou and Josh Archibald as a set of wingers with the intention of playing one of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl with that line on a regular basis. It’s an elimination game and if you need 29 and 97 to play over 26 minutes, then that’s what you need to do.
  • Their 5v5 play needs to be better. I think their best line at even-strength has actually been their fourth line. Kharia, Neal, and Chiasson have been playing their ‘A’ game but I’m not sure how many other Oilers forwards can say the same. They need everyone to show that they want to make an impact. There have been too many passengers at even strength.
  • I really felt for Ethan Bear when they showed his face as he watched the replay of the Hawks winning goal. The rookie defenseman has been eating difficult minutes and you could make the argument that he’s been their most consistent defenseman. The goal that went off his stick was nothing more than a bad bounce and I feel like we’ll see him bounceback in a big way tomorrow.
  • Speaking of defenseman, I have been impressed with Kris Russell. He’s not perfect and he doesn’t often deliver a crisp breakout pass, but he’s been good considering the minutes he’s been forced to play. I haven’t seen him make very many mistakes and he’s done a good job of blocking shots and being a solid presence in the defensive zone. 
  • The biggest key for the Oilers tonight: get pucks on net. Crawford has looked shaky at times and has shown that he’s fully capable of giving up a bad goal or two. The Oilers need to make life difficult on him and force him to make 35-40 saves if he wants to win this game. More shots on net will also result in more offensive zone time, which could help them be more disciplined, and should make life easier of their goaltenders. Getting lots of shots and keeping the Hawks hemmed in their own end is the biggest key if the Oilers want to extend this series.
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Do I think we’re going to get a fifth game in this series? Absolutely. I think we’ll see the Oilers come out guns blazing in this one and we’ll see them play their best hockey of the series.