EDMONTON — The roles have been reversed.
In last season’s first-round playoff matchup, the Edmonton Oilers took a 2-1 series lead and the Los Angeles Kings stormed back to take Games 4 and 5. That meant the Oilers had to play desperate hockey in Game 6 in order to survive. They did — and went on to take the series.
This year, the results are backwards five games into the series. It’s the Kings that had the 2-1 series lead, lost two in a row, and now face elimination in Saturday night’s Game 6 at Crypto.com Arena.
So, knowing what it was like last year going into a do-or-die Game 6, the Oilers have something of an idea of the sense of desperation that’s been building in the Kings’ dressing room.
“We were in the opposite position last year,” said Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse. “We fed off a big win in Game 6. So, for us, there’s an importance on getting the right result tomorrow night, and that’s where we keep our minds.
“When elimination is so close, either way really, with two potential games left in this series, the urgency on both sides is going to be high and, for us, we’ve got to bring a level that’s higher than theirs.”
Desperation. Urgency. These are words that are tossed about whenever elimination games come around. And they come from both the team that’s on the brink, and the team that has the advantage.
“I know they’re going to be a desperate hockey club,” said Oilers winger Kailer Yamamoto. “Just playing in a game like that last year, there’s a lot of pressure, a lot of nerves, stuff like that going, too. There’s a lot of adrenalin, so I know they’re going to be pushing tomorrow.”
The thing about elimination games is that they often go one of two ways; either both teams go hammer-and-tong at each other in a matchup filled with emotion, or things get cautious and cagey, and it’s about who blinks first.
The Oilers believe it will be closer to hammer-and-tong than a chess match.
“I think where our focus lies is making sure that we bring our best game of the series here in game number six,” said coach Jay Woodcroft. “We understand what the challenge is, we understand where we’re playing the game, we understand the strengths of the other team. But, in the end, we think if we play our best game, we’re a tough team to beat.”
After a full practice day Thursday, the Oilers held an optional skate Friday.
After their Game 5 loss in Edmonton, the Kings vowed that they’d get off to a better start in Game 6. The Kings went down 2-0 early to the Oilers in their most recent encounter, and were chasing the game throughout.
“We’ve got to play more assertive, right from the start,” said Kings veteran Anze Kopitar, owner of a couple Stanley Cup rings, after Game 5. “I mean, it’s the start we didn’t want tonight, and didn’t need.”
But, observers of this series may have every right to question if the starts of games actually, well, mean anything. It has been a bizarre series, to say the least. Traditional hockey wisdom is that scoring the first goal is huge in the playoffs, and deficits are hard to overcome. Not this series. We’ve seen teams build 2-0 or 3-0 leads and get pegged back multiple times. The Kings stormed to a 3-0 lead in Game 4, and blew it, eventually losing in overtime.
But, despite the weird, short history of this series, the Oilers feel that they can’t afford another sluggish start in front of comedian and Kings super fan Will Ferrell and the rest of the Los Angeles crowd.
“Absolutely,” said Yamamoto of the need to start a heck of a lot better in Los Angeles, this time around. “I mean, look at the start, the last game in their barn. We were down 3-0 within 10, 15 minutes. I know they’re going to have a big start and we’ve got to weather it.”
The shifts in momentum, game to game and within games, have been huge. With what we’ve seen so far, it’s hard to see Game 6 being a low-scoring, cagey affair. It feels like these teams don’t even begin to know how to do that.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2023.
Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press