The only consistent factor in the Kings’ first four Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Edmonton Oilers was the lack of consistency from game to game by both teams.
A tense one-goal victory for the Kings in Game 1 was followed by a resounding shutout for Edmonton at home in Game 2. The Oilers won by six goals in Game 3 in Los Angeles, although the Kings showed some signs of life and roused their dormant power play. They turned those emotions into their most complete effort of the series and earned a 31-save shutout from Jonathan Quick in a victory Sunday night. The only common thread was which team scored first won each of those first four games.
Both teams found it impossible to build momentum, instead finding themselves involved in swings from one tempo and result to another. When one coach found a successful strategy, the other coach found a way to counter it, leaving the teams even two games apiece as the series resumed Tuesday night at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
Kings coach Todd McLellan has worked with Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft in Detroit, San Jose and Edmonton, so it’s no surprise they know each other’s thoughts and tendencies. But the changing nature of play and results is common in the NHL, except in Colorado’s sweep of Nashville.
“It seems to be a trend across the league. I don’t know why,” Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said before Tuesday’s game. “I think it shows that every game is different. There is no momentum between games.
But there are constant adjustments. McLellan restored gutsy winger Carl Grundstrom and conservative defenseman Troy Stecher to the roster for Game 4 and removed forward Andreas Athanasiou and rookie defenseman Jordan Spence. Those moves paid off when Stecher scored the Kings’ second and Grundstrom contributed third and fourth.
McLellan made a roster change, knocking out Gabe Vilardi and putting Atnahasiou back, but said he was counting on the team’s execution to be better than they were in Sunday’s win. To play at exactly the same level would be to step back.
“I think when you’re in a playoff the only way to win is to improve night after night, and we obviously didn’t do that after Game 1 and we didn’t do that after Game 2. I thought we did it after Game 3, but that’s in the past for now,” he said after his players took their usual optional game day training.
“Both teams are going to aim to improve and do things better, and the coaches will talk to their teams and motivate them by saying, ‘We have to do this better or that harder’, and it comes down to the players who do it. now. . If it stays like this, there are nine periods of hockey left – without overtime – and we can motivate, we can push all we want, but they have to do it, and whatever team improves night to night will probably end up winning.”
Before being thwarted by Quick, the Oilers hadn’t been ruled out since Woodcroft took over from Dave Tippett on Feb. 11. Woodcroft made some roster changes on Tuesday, including moving winger Jesse Puljujarvi from the front row to the third row in favor of small but skilled and energetic Kailer Yamamoto. “Sometimes when you weren’t playing the way you wanted to, you mixed up the deck chairs, and that’s what we did today,” Woodcroft said.
The team that wins Tuesday night will be able to close the series Thursday night at the Crypto.com Arena. If a seventh game is needed, it will be played Saturday in Edmonton.
The Kings had set a goal of making the playoffs this season as proof to fans and players that the organization has made progress. By that definition, they’ve already had a successful season. As a bonus, their young players gain playoff experience for future reference and valuable advice from two-time Cup winner Dustin Brown, who will retire after the season.
The Oilers have been under immense pressure to qualify for the playoffs with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl at their best, but the team hasn’t made it past the second round since losing in the 2006 Cup Final. They face a moment of truth as they learn to handle adversity and prosperity and adapt to the frequent ups and downs of a playoff run.
“I think as a series evolves, patterns emerge and little adjustments are made on both sides,” Woodcroft said. “For us, it’s a focus on us and the things we can do better, and there are definitely areas we’re focusing on.
“I think every game, the way it goes is different. Each of the four hockey games went differently. Even, there were differences between game 2 and game 3. For us, we are looking to continue to develop our game and develop our game and there are things that we think we can do better and we are looking forward to them implement tonight. ”
This is when champions are formed, sometimes long before they are crowned. The Kings and Oilers learn in this series that the road to the Cup will likely never be easy and could at times branch off in strange directions, and it’s up to them to navigate it with poise and presence.