The Edmonton Oilers dropped Game 1 of the best-of-seven North Division Semifinals on Wednesday, 4-1 to the visiting Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Jesse Puljujarvi gave Edmonton a brief 1-0 lead in the second period before Tucker Poolman tied things up. Dominic Toninato scored the winner midway through the third for the Jets, who added a pair of empty-netters late to secure the victory.
The game was decided on a peculiar play: Winnipeg’s Logan Stanley fired a shot from the point that appeared to hit the bar. Eventually, officials stopped play and, after a video review, ruled Toninato had tipped the puck past Oilers goaltender Mike Smith into the net before it bounced back into play.
With the series moving east to Bell MTS Place for Games 3 and 4, the Oilers need a big win at home Friday (7 p.m. MT) to even the best-of-seven battle at 1-1. Here are three takeaways from Edmonton Game 1 loss and how they could factor into Game 2 at Rogers Place.
Puljujarvi Is Ready for Prime Time
Observers have marveled all year at the transformation of Oilers winger Puljujarvi. At the end of the 2018-19 season, he left Edmonton devoid of confidence, having fulfilled none of the potential that led the Oilers to select him fourth overall in 2016.
But a year playing for Karpat, a top-division club in his native Finland, he returned to Edmonton a new man. Not only had Puljajarvi become the offensive threat that was always envisioned of him (scoring 15 goals and adding 10 assists in 54 games), he possessed a complete game that wasn’t always expected (a plus-six rating, fourth-best among Oilers forwards).
But the playoffs are a different animal, they say. So how would he perform in his NHL postseason debut, Wednesday? Better than just about anyone else wearing orange and blue. He scored the team’s lone goal – becoming the 13th player in franchise history to score in his first playoff game – and was constantly on the puck and driving the play from start to finish.
THW’s Jim Parsons wrote recently how Puljujarvi could become the second-best player from the 2016 Draft, and he just might be right. If the 23-year-old can continue to play like he has all season and in Game 1, the Oilers will have a greater chance at rallying to win the series.
The Best Weren’t at Their Best
But the Oilers won’t be staging any comebacks if Puljujarvi is their best player every game. The all-world duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid will need to be more productive than they were on Wednesday. Did the Hart Trophy winners play poorly? Not at all. Draisaitl played 24:41, and McDavid logged 23:14 of ice time, and they fired, respectively, four and two shots on Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck. But neither player registered a point, something that had happened only eight times in 56 games during the regular season.
Credit goes to Winnipeg’s forecheck. Determined not to give up any odd-man rushes, the Jets always kept a forward above the puck and fell back immediately when Edmonton got possession in the Oilers zone. It was a highly disciplined performance to an individual by the Jets, who gave up 33 shots but didn’t require Hellebuyck to make many 10-bell saves.
That said, McDavid is the NHL’s best player, and Draisaitl’s not that far behind. Edmonton finished with the second-best record in the division because they combined to average an astronomical 3.375 points per game. Without a similar output level in this series, Edmonton’s postseason stay will be a short one.
As good as they are, it’s difficult to imagine Draisaitl and McDavid being shut down for long. During the regular season, Draisaitl only had three instances of going two games without a point, and McDavid only had one multi-game point drought. Legends are made in the playoffs, and that opportunity is now for Edmonton’s two superstars that have only made it past the first round once.
This Isn’t the Same Team
So why could things be different this time? Well, this definitely isn’t the same Oilers team that was bounced from the bubble in four games by the Chicago Blackhawks during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last summer. Those Oilers looked every bit a relatively young and inexperienced team affected by the circumstances and succumbed to the moment.
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But on Wednesday, the Oilers played a sound and composed game with notable self-assurance. In the post-game press conference, their comments contained no hint of panic or lack of confidence, only a trust that if they stick to the plan, results will come.
“I actually didn’t mind our game. I thought we did a lot of good things,” Oilers captain McDavid said. “I thought we had the puck a lot of the night, played in their zone. Put a lot of pucks there. Just didn’t find a way to get one. That’s the way it goes. They get a tip, we don’t. That’s playoff hockey.”
Indeed it is. So it matters not that Edmonton won seven of nine – including the last six – meetings with the Jets in the regular season. What matters is the Oilers now find a way to win four of their next six in the postseason.