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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Grease is the Word

We’ve watched enough hockey over the years to know that when the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets opened their playoff series at Rogers Place last night, space would be tighter, open ice would be more contested and grease and grunt would play a bigger part than it had during a regular season series the Oilers dominated. Of course, we did.

The Jets never did find a way to get a handle on the high-flying Oilers’ duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who lit them up during a regular season series Edmonton won 7-2-0, but they tore a page out of the tried-and-true playoff book and followed it line by line on the way to a 4-1 win and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Jets managed to keep McDavid and Draisaitl quiet despite being outplayed in stretches and outshot 33-22. They got the kind of goaltending they’ve come to expect from Connor Hellebuyck. They crashed and banged, lugged the puck to the net and found a way to score enough goals despite opening the series without key cogs Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois.

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Winnipeg’s first goal came from third-pairing defenceman Tucker Poolman. He came in with five goals in 120 NHL games, but went to the paint and banged a rebound behind Mike Smith. The Jets got the eventual winner on a deflection from fourth-liner Dominic Toninato, who dressed in place of Dubois and came in with just five goals in 87 games. It was the kind of goal Ryan Smyth used to score – without spitting out teeth and blood and having Derian Hatcher beating the snot out him. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done, as it often does in playoffs.

TEXTBOOK PLAYOFF HOCKEY

Mar 15, 2021; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett on his bench during a timeout against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome.

“It’s playoff hockey, it’s tight,” coach Dave Tippett said. “They got a break on the winning goal and the first empty-net goal — it hits the referee. That’s the way things go, it’s going to be tight and you have to capitalize on some chances. There are some things we can do better, some execution things, but that’s how it’s going to be. It’s going to be tight hockey.”

Contrary to freaking out from some of the fanbase post-game, the Oilers played well enough to win on many nights, just not this one. Aside from Jesse Puljujarvi pumping a rebound past Hellebuyck for a 1-0 lead, they didn’t create enough second shots in the greasy areas. When they did, Hellebuyck, 2-5-0 against the Oilers in the regular season, had the answer. Two empty-netters provide more separation on the scoreboard than there was on the ice.

“I think we had some nerves and some jitters in the first period,” said McDavid, who had 22 points in the regular season series. “We kind of got through that even, but then I thought we took over in the second and did a lot of good things. We put a lot of pucks on net and hemmed them in there for chunks at a time. You’d like to come out of that period with a lead, but ultimately that wasn’t the case. The third period was back and forth, a tight hockey game. They get a bounce and that’s the way it goes.”

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“Playoff hockey is tight hockey,” reiterated Tippett. “You collapse around the net, you’re hard on the walls, you’re doing little things right. Finding ways to capitalize on an opportunity here and there . . . you can look back at all the regular season you want, it’s going to be tight. Space is at a premium out there.”

None of this is news to Tippett or his players, despite a roster that is shy on playoff experience compared to the Jets. At the bottom line, the Oilers lost on a deflection by a fourth-liner. There is room for improvement to be sure, but there is time to adjust. They need a little more nose for the net here, more puck battles won there. It’s not a case of don’t-worry-be-happy, but one of tweaks, attention to detail and commitment to getting greasy.

THE WAY I SEE IT

There’s no chance Wednesday’s loss has taken any of the fight out of the Oilers. Not Smith, who lives and breaths for the battle, or McDavid, Draisaitl and Nurse. Yes, for those mistakenly drawing comparisons to the play-in loss to Chicago last summer, they vividly remember how it feels to come up short. To a man, they should understand better now than they did then what needs to be done to avoid a repeat. I believe they do.

A bad bounce and a deflection doesn’t change that for me. You?

#MISSIONSTANLEY

First goal playoffs, next up: Mission Stanley. Grab your #MISSIONSTANLEY tee here.

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Previously by Robin Brownlee