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Photo Credit: Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Can the Oilers Regroup?

That was a record-breaking bad performance by the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to last night, Calgary had never scored more than seven goals against Edmonton in a playoff game. They put up nine on the Oilers. The six goals Edmonton scored shouldn’t be seen as anything more than an odd distraction.

The Flames controlled the game whenever they wanted, and the Oilers, from the goalies to the defenceman and up to the forwards, were not ready to play.

The Flames scored two goals in the opening 51 seconds of the game — a new NHL record. It was 3-0 at the 6:05 mark and Mike Smith was taken out of the game. Sure, Smith could have stopped one or two of the goals, but in the six minutes he played, and the next 54, the Oilers’ defensive zone coverage and overall execution were at a pre-season game level.

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Craig MacTavish described what he saw through the eyes of a former NHL head coach.

“That was mind blowingly bad to start the game,” said MacTavish. “In the first five minutes, for sure the first four minutes, the only completed pass I saw was from Mike Smith. They did not complete one pass in four minutes in hockey, I don’t think. There wasn’t one clean movement of the puck.

“On the penalty kill, I think Archibald turned back in the offensive zone, about four and a half minutes in, and fired a pass back, that went-tape-to-tape, it might have been Duncan Keith. It was bizarre.

“Calgary had their foot on the throttle the whole game. When they got disinterested the Oilers got back in the game, and then they got interested again and slapped them around. You talked about the defensive zone coverage…When you are going soft to the outside in the defensive zone, with two guys, you are screwed. There are all kinds of holes in much more dangerous areas than the one you’re tippy toeing in to.

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“They lacked assertiveness in the defensive zone. The gap was bad. The puck movement was atrocious and you get the type of result that we saw in game one. As a coach, I would have rather continued to get blown out if I was Jay Woodcroft. I wouldn’t want anyone thinking we were close to winning that game. Jay (Woodcroft) will be all over this today. There is lots of video and visual evidence of what they did wrong.”

Blaming the goalies will be easy, but you can’t let the players off the hook. The team had another bad start. That is five of eight games in which the Oilers weren’t ready to play at the opening whistle.

At 5×5 they were outshot 35-20. Not one player was on the ice for more shots for than against. Brett Kulak (8-8) and Ryan McLeod (1-1) were the only ones not below 50%. Even Connor McDavid, who had four points and was dangerous offensively, got caved in at 5×5 as he finished with a 37.7CF%, 38.7SF% and 35.3xGF%. Even he wasn’t immune to the onslaught, but he was far from their worst player. At least he was engaged.

It was an ugly loss. They were overwhelmed from the start and even when they magically managed to tie the game at six, they were unable to find their structure. The Flames were much more aggressive than the Oilers’ first-round opponent Los Angeles Kings, but Leon Draisaitl said that is just an excuse.

“It’s a different team,” said Draisaitl. “It’s built very different, very different system, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before or something we can’t handle. You’re not going to win any games if you get scored on nine times, there’s no secret to that. I think we can all be a lot better away from the puck, and that starts with myself.”

And it isn’t just thinking the game. The Oilers didn’t match the physical determination of the Flames.

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“It’s going to be a hard, physical series and we weren’t hard enough tonight,” said Darnell Nurse bluntly. Nurse is clearly banged up. He only played 18 minutes, and he doesn’t have the usual explosiveness in his stride. He, like the rest of the team, will need to use their wits as much as their brawn in game two.

Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft added this about their physical play.

“If you look at the game sheet, Connor (McDavid) led our team in hits tonight. It’s a good thing for him because he’s playing hard, but we can have more physical attachment to the game. To me, that’s not even just the finished check or the scrum, it’s the 50/50 battle, it’s body position net front, how hard you are around your blue paint, how hard you are in front of their blue paint. We weren’t good enough to a man, all of us,” said Woodcroft.

Woodcroft was asked if his team had enough players who were comfortable being uncomfortable?

“Not tonight, we weren’t good enough tonight, ” he said. “I didn’t think our powerplay was good enough either. That’s a form of our toughness as well. If a team wants to take liberties, for us to be able to sting teams on the powerplay, that is important. I didn’t think we were sharp. I think it was symptomatic of the rest of our game. In the end, we scored six even-strength goals. We should win that game and to me, in those type of situations, you should be hanging your hats on your defensive details. For us, they weren’t here tonight.”

WHAT WILL CHANGE?

May 18, 2022; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft on his bench against the Calgary Flames during the third period in game one of the second round of the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to think they can play better, but the Oilers do struggle against teams who forecheck aggressively. The Oilers will need to get back to pucks quicker, and move the puck much faster, and more accurately. They also have to tighten up their defensive zone coverage. Flames players found themselves wide open in the low slot far too often.

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And Woodcroft will need to supply a strong, positive message.

“Everyone is looking at the coach to provide the insight and the guidance to change it,” said MacTavish. “You have to come up with a plan and the plan has to have credibility. It has to be backed up by video, at times, on things you need to do.

“In a leadership position you have to deliver a strategic message to the team after a loss. You just have to. It is part of the job. So everyone can get their teeth into, okay, that is what we are going to, that is what we are going to change and that will change the result.

I enjoyed that part of it. Tactical changes that the players could sink their teeth into,” said MacTavish.

Woodcroft had the right message after game five against L.A., and the Oilers responded with two of their most complete defensive games of the season in games six and and seven. How they start the game on Friday will likely foreshadow how they will play the rest of the night. When they start well they continue it all game, but when they started slowly, it’s much more challenging for them to find their game.

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I expect Mike Smith to start game two. Smith had a .700Sv%, Jacob Markstrom had a .786%. Both will be in the pipes on Friday.

I could see Woodcroft re-inserting Warren Foegele in the lineup. It is only one change, and it won’t mean much if the rest of the team doesn’t play better. It might be too drastic for Friday, but if the Oilers have another rough outing in game two, I could see Woodcroft putting Dylan Holloway in the lineup for game three or four. They could use his speed, but I think Woodcroft will give his veterans an opportunity to bounce back first.

Regardless of who plays, the entire group will need to be more focused from the start and ready to match the speed, tenacity and competitiveness of the Flames. If they don’t, it will be a short series.

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