The air has been let out of the Western Conference Final.
Administering a series stranglehold, the Colorado Avalanche have moved to within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Final after following up their two victories on home ice to start the series with a 4-2 triumph over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 3 on Saturday night in Rogers Place.
J.T. Compher provided the decisive moment past the midway mark of the third period when he hopped out of the penalty box and skated on a loose puck cleared out of the Colorado zone. Edmonton nearly took back the advantage while pressing on the power play, hitting the post with a point shot from Evan Bouchard only seconds earlier. But Bouchard was without the pace and power at the end of his shift to win a puck battle in open ice with Compher, who outmuscled the defender before sliding the puck through the legs of Mike Smith for his series-best third goal, and his fifth in his last four games.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 5, 2022
Future prized offseason target Valeri Nichushkin had the first two goals for the Avalanche, establishing an advantage that held until Ryan McLeod tied the game in the third period for Edmonton. Nichushkin's goals both came on fortunate deflections — the first of which erased Connor McDavid's icebreaker scored under a minute into the game.
Colorado's last goal belonged to Mikko Rantanen, who iced the game into an empty net.
There are several key storylines to emerge from the game, of which include the goaltending.
In consecutive victories, Pavel Francouz continues to do an admirable job in Colorado's net in place of the injured Darcy Kuemper. He made 27 stops in the game, including a miraculous denial on McDavid during the Oilers' best stretch of the game in the moments immediately preceding the Compher goal.
But despite the urgency the Oilers should have approached the game with, Smith was by far the busier netminder, and seemed to battle through some discomfort on his way to 38 saves.
There's an argument for Smith as one of the best Oilers on the night, even when allowing three goals in a loss. But Edmonton desperately needed a save on the Compher break, only to see their netminder leave a wide-open five-hole for a puck to travel through.
He also made a complete mess of the first Colorado goal.
Better lucky than good?😅
Valeri Nichushkin ties the game after a fortunate deflection off the stick of Darnell Nurse helps the puck squeeze past the arm and post of Mike Smith.
— The Athletic NHL (@TheAthleticNHL) June 5, 2022
Smith's trying, and even performing.
But there are clearly cracks in his game, and the imperfections are so that the Avalanche will take advantage, as long as the opposition is offering little in the way of resistance.
This has been about the Avalanche, though, and not Smith or the Oilers.
What's most striking through three games in the series is that Colorado is clearly morphing into something different from its previous postseason disappointments.
Losing Sam Girard in the second round, Kuemper at different points, and now most recently Nazem Kadri after an exceedingly dangerous and perhaps punishable hit from behind from Evander Kane, nothing has been able to come between the team and its goals.
The Avalanche are, aside from Game 1, playing with far less variability to their game compared to previous postseasons. They are above the puck at all times, they are closing on McDavid and Leon Draisaitl with the utmost efficiency. They have been machine-like in their approach.
They have turned into something more than just the team with more talent than everyone else.
Sort of like the Tampa Bay Lightning once did.
Case in point: In Francouz's two starts, and since securing an advantage in the series after Game 1 went off-script, the Avalanche have out-shot the Oilers 83-53.
The Avalanche are now the ones taking pride in choking out the opposition.
"You don't gotta please anybody," MacKinnon said, allowing folks into their world in the postgame.
"We're here to make it boring and gross."
He's right about the aesthetics; they have taken a major hit. The series that was supposed to inspire the casuals has lost its momentum with McDavid and Draisaitl struggling in their isolations, and the Oilers finding very little of the success they had in the first two rounds when they were threatening to update the NHL's postseason record books.
Some of that can be chalked up to the questionable decision-making on the part of the Oilers coaching staff, and the idea that McDavid and Draisaitl should have been spread across two lines.
But to assign blame to Edmonton would be discrediting what the Avalanche have become.
What we're seeing in the Western Conference Final from the Avalanche is the maturation, depth, and dominance shining through for a truly great team, and one which is uninterested in anything other than winning.
The task has become more difficult now, and even after essentially punching a ticket into the NHL's championship series. That's because Kadri will be lost for the remainder of the series and likely beyond, according to head coach Jared Bednar.
Kadri's loss will test this team in the same manner that losing Girard and Kuemper have, and it's possible they run out of solutions before they reach their goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
But they had another answer in Game 3 through Compher.
Which is fitting, because it'll be Compher stepping into Kadri's role.
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