The Edmonton Oilers suffered a devastating 5-4 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3 of the National Hockey League North Division Semi-Final on Sunday at Bell MTS Place, where they blew a 4-1 third period lead in one of the worst collapses in franchise history.
Edmonton, which after a great regular season had entered the playoffs with hopes of a long run, now trails the best-of-seven series 3-0 and will face elimination in Game 4, Monday (7:45 pm MT) in Winnipeg.
The events that have unfolded over the first three games of the series, particularly in the third period on Sunday, along with the present-day Oilers’ postseason track record, raises some questions if this team has the character and leadership to match its skill and talent.
After losing the series’ first two games at home, 4-1 (which included a pair of empty-net goals) and 1-0 (in overtime), Edmonton came out blazing in Game 3, with Leon Draisaitl scoring goals 2:37 apart to stake the Oilers to a 2-0 lead before the 10-minute mark of the opening period. Winnipeg’s Nikolaj Ehlers scored to make it 2-1 late in the second, but the Oilers answered with winger Zack Kassian scoring just over a minute later, then added to their lead at 4:43 of the third period on a goal by Jujhar Khaira.
It was still 4-1 at 11:11 when Edmonton’s Josh Archibald was sent to the box after clipping Logan Stanley, an inexcusable penalty taken on an unjustifiable play.
Jets center Mathieu Perreault scored 30 seconds into the proceeding power-play. A Blake Wheeler goal at 14:28 cut the lead to one, and 16 seconds after that, Josh Morrissey beat Oilers netminder Mike Smith to level the score. Three minutes and three seconds; three goals.
By this point an Oilers loss seemed inevitable; it was just a matter of when and at whose hands. The answer came at 9:13 into overtime, when Ehlers scored his second goal of the night, blowing a puck past Smith after a face-off win by Paul Stastny.
Flashback to 2017, when Edmonton’s current core of forwards Draisaitl, Conner McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and blueliner Darnell Nurse all made their NHL postseason debuts. Things couldn’t have started better for the young upstarts that spring; the Oilers defeated the defending Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks 4-2 in the first round and stole the first two games on the road from the veteran Anaheim Ducks in the second round.
But the Ducks regrouped and won Games 3 and 4 in Edmonton to even the series. In Game 5 at the Honda Center, the Oilers held a 3-0 lead late, before Anaheim scored at 16:44, 17:19, and 19:45. Three minutes and one second; three goals. Sound familiar? The Ducks went on to win 4-3 with a goal in double overtime.
While Edmonton won Game 6, they ultimately fell in Game 7. The Oilers missed the playoffs in 2018 and 2019. They returned to the postseason last summer in the Edmonton playoff bubble. Still, they were upset 3-1 in the best-of-five Stanley Cup Qualifiers by the Chicago Blackhawks, failing to rise to the occasion against a team that had finished with the Western Conference’s 12th best record in the regular season.
And now, after losing the first three games of the series against Winnipeg, the Oilers are 2-10 in their last 12 postseason outings.
There’s a pattern here of Edmonton wilting under the bright postseason lights. It’s happened with different coaches and general managers (Todd McLellan and Peter Chiarelli in 2017; Dave Tippett and Ken Holland in 2020 and 2021) and different goalies between the pipes (Cam Talbot in 2017, Mikko Koskinen in 2020, Smith in 2020 and 2021). It’s happened when the Oilers have been favored and when they’ve been underdogs. It’s happened in front of raucous crowds, and it’s happened in empty buildings.
The constant has been Draisaitl, McDavid, Nurse, Nugent-Hopkins. They, along with Kassian, Adam Larsson, and Kris Russell, have been with the Oilers for each of their last three postseason appearances (although Russell has yet to suit up this year, as he continues to recover from injury).
McDavid is the best player on planet earth, Draisaitl is top 5, and both have won the Ted Lindsay Award and the Art Ross and Hart Memorial trophies. Nurse has emerged as a Norris Trophy candidate, and Nugent-Hopkins has produced at a rate of more than 20 goals and nearly 40 assists per 82 games over his 10-season career. Larsson is a top-level shutdown defender. So why aren’t they achieving more?
In Need of Direction
Over the last few years, the Oilers haven’t had much in the way of significant veteran presence. The supporting cast has been largely younger players, with a mixture of more experienced hands further down the lineup. The leadership responsibilities have been thrust upon captain McDavid and alternates Draisaitl, Larsson, Nugent-Hopkins, and Nurse.
None jump out as the kind of guy that will grab a teammate by the scruff of the neck and give a kick in the butt when needed, nor anyone that will give a rousing speech straight out of Braveheart. There’s no bad cop amongst the good ones, nor any that possess a fiery, heart-on-their-sleeve personality. And that’s ok. Not everyone is like that. But every team needs one – if not two or three or four – people like that.
Now it must be said that we have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. Edmonton’s core players may be nothing like what their public personas suggest, and they may indeed be just the kind of leaders this team needs. But if that’s the case, why is it not manifesting in results?
Edmonton is a good team; it didn’t finish second in the North Division regular-season standings by accident. And the Oilers have arguably been the better team in this series; they’ve led for nearly 52 minutes, compared to just over 10 for the Jets, and outshot Winnipeg 119-95. It’s only in those brief but oh-so-pivotal moments when the pressure has most ratcheted that the Jets have been superior.
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Yes, Archibald was irresponsible, and his penalty put unnecessary pressure on his team. But even after the resulting power-play goal, the Oilers still had a two-goal advantage with less than nine minutes remaining. Championship contenders find a way to lock that down and bring it home. On Sunday night, in those critical moments, the Oilers looked lost.
McDavid is rightly compared to Wayne Gretzky for his peerless ability. Both are also similarly mild-mannered. But as captain, Gretzky led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup triumphs in six years. The difference is Gretzky had the infectious passion of a Mark Messier to inspire belief in his teammates or the tough love of a Kevin Lowe to demand better of them. Who fills those roles on this Oilers team?
If anyone does, we’re about to find out who. And Oilers fans everywhere hope that this group only needed to be pushed this far before the resilience that has been missing in the postseason emerges.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.