Oilers observations: Edmonton shows it can hang with Colorado in a playoff preview

EDMONTON — The 3-2 overtime loss wasn’t the desired result, but the Edmonton Oilers proved they have what it takes to hang with the Colorado Avalanche if they meet again in a couple of months.

“It’s as close to a playoff game as it’s going to get,” Oilers star Leon Draisaitl said. “It’s a good point (in the standings) but would’ve liked to get the two.”

The Oilers entered the third period down a goal and scored twice before the Avalanche tied it. Artturi Lekhonen beat Draisaitl to the net and finished off a pass from Nathan MacKinnon with less than a second left in three-on-three action.

“It’s a split second where I lost my guy, and the game is over,” Draisaitl said.

The Oilers lost by the slimmest of margins in a game that had a little bit of everything other than a Connor McDavid point. His 26-game home point streak was snapped.

After being swept by the Avs in the Western Conference finals two years ago, there’s little doubt a rematch would be much closer.

“We think we can play with anybody,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “We’ve got a few more weeks to get better before the playoffs start.”

“We hope to see this team later on because that means we’re making it to the third round,” goaltender Stuart Skinner said. “That’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.”

Every hockey fan should, too.

Here’s what stood out from an Oilers perspective — some aspects that provide optimism if these teams meet again in a best-of-seven series and some factors that should cause concern.

Skinner stars

The Oilers will give any team a run for their money in the postseason if Skinner plays the way he did against the Avalanche.

If Skinner wasn’t the Oilers’ best player, he was sure close. He made 40 saves and exuded calmness under pressure to stop several high-danger chances from opposition shooters.

His two best saves came against all-world blueliner Cale Makar at the end of an Avalanche first-period power play and on a penalty shot from Jonathan Drouin in the second.

“He was great,” Draisaitl said. “He’s been great for a long time now. He gave us a chance.”

The reigning Calder Trophy runner-up has had some rough patches this season to be sure — namely before American Thanksgiving and for a few games out of the All-Star break. Otherwise, he’s been rock solid. He’s posted at least a .920 save percentage in each of his last seven starts. He’s up to .908 on the season.

“We have a lot of confidence in him — and that confidence isn’t just because of the way he’s been playing for a week or two,” Knoblauch said. “It’s been three to four months.”

In case you forgot, Skinner was wearing a suit and tie the last time these teams met in the playoffs. Mike Smith was the starter and Mikko Koskinen was his backup; Skinner was the No. 3.

Bottom-pair struggles

This was the seventh game Brett Kulak and Cody Ceci have been partners in this stint, dating back to March 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was by far their worst outing together.

It seemed at least one of them was out of position on every shift in the second period. The most glaring example caused the Drouin breakaway and resulted in an unsuccessful penalty shot after Ryan Nugent-Hopkins busted back to hook him. Another bad case came back to bite them for the opening goal of the game.

Kulak stepped up at the red line, which quickly led to Avalanche defenceman Sean Walker keeping and scoring on a two-on-one.

The Kulak-Ceci duo played 13 minutes together at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. In that time, the Oilers were outshot 9-4, out-attempted 23-8 and outscored 2-0. They had a 25.3 expected goals percentage.

Vincent Desharnais fighting Avs defenceman Josh Manson in the final minute of the second period caused him to sit on the bench for the rest of the third after he was released from the penalty box. Knoblauch said there “could be” an injury from the fight.

That mostly led to Ceci being reunited with Darnell Nurse and Kulak being spotted in for Mattias Ekholm at times to get minutes with Evan Bouchard.

Knoblauch felt they fared fine with five defencemen for the last 20:35 of regulation, plus overtime.

“They can handle it,” he said.

Maybe so. But Kulak and Ceci had a rougher time throughout the game.

Any further absence from Desharnais could likely call No. 7 rearguard Troy Stecher into duty, and cause another shakeup to the defence corps.

Regardless of the severity of Desharnais’ injury, it seems clear the Kulak-Ceci pairing has some work to do before it can be counted on to play against elite teams in the postseason.

Walker burns the Oilers

There was a lot of chatter about the Oilers landing Walker leading up to the trade deadline before the Philadelphia Flyers dealt him to the Avalanche. There were reports they made a serious play for him, too.

It would have been nice if he was on their side on Saturday.

Walker scored twice. In addition to that opening marker, he had the tying goal in the third period when he walked in from the blue line, received a pass from fellow deadline acquisition Casey Mittelstadt and fired a shot open.

“We found our depth (scoring) in the third with the (Sam) Carrick line and (Warren) Foegele scoring to get us on the board, and they found theirs with the defence jumping up,” Knoblauch said.

But Walker was also a major pain for the Oilers aside from the offence. He played hard along the boards and also caught Evander Kane with an open-ice hit that irritated the winger.

Walker’s excellent performance only stood out more when coupled with Ceci’s subpar night. The Oilers almost certainly would have had to move out Ceci for salary-cap and positional reasons to bring in Walker.

The third-period shuffle

Rotating defencemen because of a possible injury to Desharnais wasn’t the only change the Oilers coaching staff had to make in the third period.

Down a goal entering the frame, Knoblauch loaded up his top line with McDavid, Draisaitl and Zach Hyman — something he’s done many times before when trailing. Nugent-Hopkins essentially flipped spots with Draisaitl in the lineup and centred wingers Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele.

“That was the intention of playing Leon against MacKinnon for the night,” Knoblauch said. “There were a few shifts in the first period after penalties, or an O-zone faceoff we put McDavid and Leon together. When they were out there together, they generated most of our offence. As we went on, we reunited those three just to provide a little more offence.

“The third period I thought was our best period. Next time we play them at home or there, there’s some questions or things the coaching staff has a lot to discuss.”

The moves worked. Hyman had a goal overturned for a kicking motion. But Foegele tied the game and Sam Carrick put them ahead with his first goal as an Oiler.

The Oilers had lots of players used in understated roles — even if they were niche ones. Draisaitl and Carrick were tasked with winning faceoffs and getting off the ice. Connor Brown was called upon as a defensive specialist for a draw in the Edmonton zone late in the third.

“That’s as close as it’s going to get to a playoff game, so there’s a lot of maneuvering and line juggling and matching,” Draisaitl said. “We’ve got a lot of great players on our team that can handle that.”

(Photo of  Stuart Skinner making a save on a deflection against the Avalanche: Perry Nelson / USA Today)

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