It doesn't have to be a firefight.
This much the Colorado Avalanche proved in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, shutting down — and sure enough shutting out — the Edmonton Oilers with a 4-0 victory on Thursday night at Ball Arena to take a 2-0 series lead.
Nazem Kadri had three primary assists in a three-goal offensive explosion from the Avalanche over the space of two minutes and four seconds early in the second period. Artturi Lehkonen, Josh Manson, and Mikko Rantanen had the goals from those Kadri set-ups to blow the game wide open, while Nathan MacKinnon scored a power-play goal to sew things up late in the third period, and finished with a game-high 10 shots.
In an impressive all-around effort for Colorado, it was Pavel Francouz who raised his level most, however. The back-up netminder made 24 saves in place of Darcy Kuemper, who exited Game 1 under mysterious circumstances and was unavailable in Game 2 for the Avalanche and head coach Jared Bednar.
Francouz's counterpart, Mike Smith, was solid despite it being "Maybe Mikko", with faint whispers of a goaltending change for Edmonton as well. Smith was particularly sharp under duress in the first period, and stopped the first 16 shots the Avalanche placed on target. He also stood tall as the Avalanche drowned the Oilers with pressure in the third period, with his only blemish coming after he lost his glove on MacKinnon's power-play blast. Even so, Smith had to settle for second best after finishing somewhere worse in Game 1 when four netminders were featured.
But it was certainly less about goaltending that it was about one team establishing control in Game 2.
The Avalanche dominated in just about every meaningful metric, including doubling the Oilers in total scoring chances. But the speed and the swarming nature of the Avalanche really stood out, and proved to be too much for the Oilers to handle.
The pressure Colorado applied in the offensive zone created so many problems from the Oilers' blue line, and its best moments in the game were a product of that suffocating style.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 3, 2022
Perhaps unforced, Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft made an attempt to win more minutes on balance with a different distribution of top talent as opposed to Game 1.
Edmonton spread its superstar duo of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl back across two lines after an injury to Draisaitl in Game 6 versus the Los Angeles Kings forced Woodcroft to tether the two together. It's been a bonanza since, with McDavid and Draisaitl leading the postseason in scoring by margin, but clearly Woodcroft felt that Draisaitl, on a healthier ankle, could potentially create some advantageous looks in the middle six, leaving McDavid to deal with the MacKinnon unit.
While there was logic to it, the move worked out to have the opposite effect. McDavid was bottled up and seemed to struggle without Draisaitl's masterful ability to feed him the puck, while Edmonton's second line, which had Draisaitl centreing Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto, produced nothing offensively.
Combined, the Oilers' top two lines as constructed entering the game managed 0.39 expected goals in 16 five-on-five minutes.
What was most striking about Colorado's ability to neutralize the Oilers after failing to bury them in Game 1 was their ability to absorb McDavid's momentum — even when the world's most dynamic talent generated a head of steam. Cale Makar and Devon Toews, who make up Colorado's brilliant top defensive pairing, each coolly shut down McDavid at full flight early in the game.
Cale Makar defending against Connor McDavid 👀 pic.twitter.com/llh0LbdglU
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) June 3, 2022
Those moments seemed to set the tone for the Avalanche and McDavid himself, as the superstar seemed to grow frustrated by his inability to break free in the game.
Another injury — this time to Yamamoto — might necessitate that McDavid and Draisaitl are reunited, though that would probably be a logical conclusion to draw anyway. But with Yamamoto banged up, the Oilers may have to dig further into the depths of the lineup to produce a second scoring unit, which will be left seriously vulnerable if Draisaitl is elevated back to McDavid's wing.
One player that could feast on a lesser unit run out by the Oilers in the middle six as the series continues is Kadri, who continues to write his redemption story this postseason. Kadri has continued to keep his nose clean throughout these playoffs, exclusively showing the best from his game.
His third assist was a thing of beauty.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 3, 2022
Kadri has put his stamp on at least one game in each series so far, which is, of course, a departure from previous postseasons, when bad decisions and ugly moments forced him out of the lineup. He's been everything the Avalanche believed he could be so far.
It's a veritable must-win, now, for the Oilers in Game 3 with the series shifting back to Edmonton. They will need to unearth some strategies in short order to slow down the opposition and open up some mismatches of their own if they are going to fight their way back into the series.
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