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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

A Playoff Primer

Hack, whack, chop, smack. A high-stick here, a leg-drag there. There was plenty of ill will and bad intentions from the get-go between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens last night at Rogers Place in a game the Oilers finally busted open and won 4-1. It was a textbook playoff primer, a sneak peek at the way the game tends to get played in the post-season.

There was Philip Danault coming in late and low on Connor McDavid, Alexander Romanov throwing a check that sent Jujhar Khaira wobbling to the bench and out of the game. We watched Paul Byron throw a sneaky headshot on Caleb Jones and Leon Draisaitl attempt to comb Josh Anderson’s hair with his stick. The level of intensity and nastiness fans saw last night is the kind of hockey the Oilers will see more of when the playoffs begin.

In the end, it was McDavid who grabbed this wildly frenetic throw-down of a throwback by the scruff of the neck in the third period with a goal, the winner, and two assists as the Oilers beat the Habs for just the second time in six tries this season. This was a crowd-pleaser without the crowd, a step along the learning curve that will serve the Oilers well in the first round of playoffs – even if that won’t be against the Canadiens.

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On a night when Mike Smith kept them in it early, it was the skill and will of McDavid that was the difference. First, McDavid set up Ethan Bear’s 1-1 goal. Then, he turned on the afterburners and beat Jake Allen to put the Oilers ahead to stay at 2-1 before sending Jesse Puljujarvi in alone to make it 3-1. When Devin Shore hit an empty net, the Oilers had scored four times in a span of 7:32 in the third period to win it going away. Take that, and this too.

A TEST

Apr 19, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujarvi (13) celebrates a third period goal against /the Montreal Canadiens at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Habs had kept McDavid and Draisaitl in check through five games and 50 minutes, limiting both to just two assists, before the big swing in play last night. The Canadiens went at McDavid and Draisaitl early. It didn’t back either one of them off a bit. Instead, they dug in and came back harder. The best part of the story is No. 97 and No. 29 had plenty of company, from Smith battling in the blue paint on out.

“That’s a team that’s had our number, for whatever reason this year,” said McDavid, who has had to fight for every inch against the Habs. “It’s completely work-based against this team. They do a great job of clogging up the middle, they have big rangy D-men who break the puck out well and are hard to forecheck. You just have to outwork them. You look at the teams that have had success against them, and that seems to be the recipe.”

“That’s the kind of hockey we’re going to have down the stretch,” Bear said of a game that produced 67 hits, according to the stats sheet — many of them the full-meal deal variety. Everyone is trying to push for the playoffs and make sure they’re ready, so when playoff time comes you just play. It’s about building your game and I think we’re doing a good job of that.”

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The teams go at it again Wednesday and the Oilers will have to get along without Khaira, who was in big trouble after the Romanov hit. Khaira, concussed in a fight with Calgary’s Brett Ritchie March 16, staggered to his feet and was lurching around before Bear came in to prevent him from falling down again.  He’s definitely out for the rematch. Beyond that, we don’t know.

“I think they’ve really dug in,” coach Dave Tippett said of his line-up. “Last week we had a couple good practices and talked about where we are as a team and where we want to go. I give the players a ton of credit. They’ve recognized that we want to play as well as we can down the stretch. Games are going to be hard. It’s going to be hard to win. If we expect improve as a team, we’re going to have to embrace that.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

Winners of eight straight games on home ice heading into the stretch drive, how the Oilers prevailed is just as impressive as the fact they did. The Canadiens have had their number and it looked like more of the same with McDavid getting roughed up early and Khaira getting knocked out of the game. It was the kind of first period that could’ve done them in had they turned the other cheek or let frustration beat them down.

At 27-15-2 for 56 points, the Oilers sit in third place, nine points up on the Habs. It’ll be two games against the Winnipeg Jets, who are one point ahead of them now, that’ll go a long way in settling who finishes second, but it’s games like last night that will go a long way in determining what they do beyond 56 games.

Previously by Robin Brownlee