The Western Conference final kicked off tonight in Denver with a match up between the Colorado Avalanche and the Edmonton Oilers. It’s been billed as Nathan MacKinnon vs. Conor McDavid, but both the Avalanche and the Oilers are stacked with skilled players that are capable of changing the trajectory of the series. A win on home ice was exactly what the Avalanche needed after a difficult loss in Game 5 to the St. Louis Blues, and although this game started feeling familiar, they were able to hold on.
The first period
The top lines for both the Avalanche and Oilers came out to begin the first period of what was bound to be a historic conference final. They set a good pace, and quite rapidly Alex Newhook demonstrated why he deserves a spot in the line-up. He’d only played two games in this year’s playoffs before today, but he was fast to the puck, a reflection of the work he’s been putting in. Colorado quickly put pressure on the Oilers, and two giveaways by Edmonton gave them chances which missed the net.
Edmonton was the first to score, Evander Kane putting one past Darcy Kuemper on a breakaway. The Avalanche have to be careful not to give the Oilers too many chances like this. They’re a capable scoring team, and if Colorado can edge them out defensively it will diminish much of their power.
Just 36 seconds after Kane converted, J.T. Compher evened the score. Receiving a great pass from Newhook he waited just long enough for Mike Smith to start going down, putting the puck in over his glove. It was Compher’s third goal of the playoffs and an important one for the Avalanche, though they all are at this stage.
The Avalanche have some speed, and the fourth line in particular can be a menace if given the chance. They dominated the next ten minutes of the period, spending much of their time in the Oilers zone. It took until 15:10 of the first, but Colorado were able to capture the lead. Cale Makar passed to Devon Toews, who passed to Nathan MacKinnon for a goal that will be making the rounds on highlight reels of this series. It was a great effort from the blueliners who have had some serious offensive production.
Darcy Kuemper made some of his best saves of the game, and it looked like Colorado would head into the intermission with a 2-1 lead. However with a pass off a skate, Zach Hyman evened things up at 19:37. Once again, there were no guarantees. Only nine seconds later Cale Makar scored an unassisted goal, which was immediately challenged by the Oilers, putting any celebrations on hold.
The immediacy of the challenge seemed to guarantee that the offside challenge would be successful, however it was ruled to be a legitimate goal. Makar pushed the puck ahead of his stick and that gave just enough time for Val Nichushkin to tag up onside. Since the Oilers lost the challenge Avalanche now had a 3-2 lead and would be starting the second period on the power play.
The second period
The Avalanche came out strong, making the most of their man advantage. Nazem Kadri, who had an incredible game last series, scored on the power play. Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar picked up assists, bringing Makar’s point total in this game to three, the same number as he had in the entire series against the Blues.
Trailing by two goals, the Oilers needed to score to have any hope of keeping themselves in the game. Unfortunately this happened when Darcy Kuemper made a stop, thinking he’d caught the puck. The puck was loose and McLeod put it in. The mistake by the Colorado netminder helped the Oilers reduce Colorado’s advantage to one goal.
There have been concerns raised about Rantanen’s output these playoffs, but on a strong pass from MacKinnon he was able to get his first goal not in to an empty net. Colorado’s domination continued, as J.T. Compher scored his second of the night, deflecting a shot from Makar and in.
In just six minutes Edmonton goaltender Mike Smith had conceded three goals, six overall and was pulled in favour of Mikko Koskinen, who had only played twice in the playoffs so far.
A second power play for Colorado came just after the goaltender change when Josh Archibald interfered on Nazem Kadri. The power play ultimately came to nothing, and in an unusual twist in what had been anything but a typical game so far, the Avalanche also made a goaltending change, as Pavel Francouz came in for Kuemper. It looked like Kuemper was having some trouble with his pad at the start of the second, so it was thought that this might be the issue. However it was later confirmed that he has an upper body injury and would not be returning for the rest of the game. Francouz started by making three huge consecutive saves as the Oilers put pressure in the Colorado zone. The crowd made sure he knew how much they appreciated him.
Darcy Kuemper has left the game with an upper body injury and is doubtful to return.— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) June 1, 2022
The second half of the period had a slightly less intense pace. Devon Toews denied McDavid a possible opportunity and neither team had particularly great scoring chances. That was until Logan O’Connor and Andrew Cogliano increased their speed, completely out-pacing the oilers and getting Colorado their seventh goal of the game.
You don’t make it this far by giving up, and McDavid answered with his first goal of the series. While a three goal lead still seems like a lot, a poorly timed penalty put Colorado on the penalty kill, giving the Oilers the chance to get another back. Francouz made several more huge saves, and an exciting second ended with Colorado up seven to the Oilers four.
The third period
Edmonton needed at least three goals to force the game to overtime, but that didn’t mean the Avalanche could relax. Andre Burakovsky blocked a shot and was struggling to get to the bench, and the Oilers were able to take advantage. Derek Ryan scored to make it 7-5 at 3:28. Although Burakovsky was off the ice for over five minutes and it seemed like he could also be injured, he thankfully returned for the second half of the period.
The high goal output seen in the first two periods decreased, although both teams had some good opportunities. Koskinen was able to shore up his goaltending and denied Nichushkin on a shot that could have helped the Avalanche reclaim a three goal lead. Behind the play Gabriel Landeskog was called for holding McDavid and the Avalanche were back on the penalty kill.
Edmonton took advantage of this opportunity, making several fast passes which Colorado were unable to defend. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored at 12:36 assisted by McDavid and Draisaitl, cutting the Avalanche lead to a single goal. Suddenly a game that had felt like it was Colorado’s for the taking with a 7-3 lead at one point was hanging in the balance.
With less than two minutes to go, the Oilers pulled their goaltender, giving Colorado the chance to seal the deal. An unlucky icing call resulted in a faceoff in the Avalanche zone to the right of Francouz, with Kadri facing Draisaitl. Although the Oilers won the faceoff, Francouz made two rapid saves and the Avalanche were able to get the puck out of the zone and up ice. Gabriel Landeskog took the puck up and put it into an empty net with 20 seconds left in the period for a 8-6 final score.
This was a huge win for Colorado, giving them a 1-0 series lead over Edmonton. The series has only just begun, and they’re going to need to keep up the intensity they showed in the first half of the game if they’re going to maintain the lead in the following games.
The calmer third period was a little scarier for the Avalanche and they can’t afford to get complacent. The Oilers are capable of coming back when they’re behind and this is something that the Avalanche must be mindful of. It will be interesting to see what goaltending choices are made for both teams next game. This will depend on how serious Kuemper’s injury is.
There will undoubtedly be some controversy regarding Cale Makar’s goal at the end of the first period. This really changed the flow of the game and is something Avalanche fans won’t be complaining about. It was a really exciting game that is only the start of what is sure to be an unpredictable series. I hope that all the games don’t finish 8-6, but a win is a win, and I’ll take it.
The series continues with Game 2 back at Ball Arena on Thursday, June 2nd at 6 p.m. MT.