Artturi Lehkonen scored the winning goal of the series in overtime as the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Edmonton Oilers 6-5 in the Western Conference Finals on Monday night.
Lehkonen added two assists, Cale Makar dominated with one goal and four assists, and Gabriel Landeskog scored and added two assists as Colorado and Edmonton played arguably the best game of the series in Game 4.
It was a bittersweet ending for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the latter of whom provided four main assists in Game 4 despite struggling through a brutal lower body injury.
Colorado will advance to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001.
Here are three takeaways from Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals:
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Avalanche withstood the Oilers’ best shot and there is no answer for Cale Makar
You can’t blame the Oilers for a lack of urgency or blame their two superstars for the loss. Edmonton threw everything at Colorado and still got away at the bitter end of one of the playoffs’ best games. McDavid is the best player alive, Draisaitl is probably somewhere in the top six or seven (more on the star duo below), but Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews and Mikko Rantanen (who has scored in every game in this series) were it also a lot to handle. Colorado’s bottom six have also surpassed Edmonton’s bottom six and it’s only fitting that they advance to the cup finals. For nearly three years, the Avalanche were unanimously the funniest team in the league, and now they’ve finally earned their ticket to the biggest stage of them all.
There is no answer for Cale Makar either. Makar repeatedly drew comparisons to Bobby Orr on Sportsnet’s show after penning a five-point performance that included the game’s opening goal. Makar, closely followed by New York’s Adam Fox, is the best player in the league when it comes to navigating the blue line on offense. His puck skills are unmatched for a defender, and he’s able to score with the league’s best forwards this postseason without sacrificing anything defensively.
Makar’s seeing-eye-shot put the Avalanche on the board, and while the Oilers threatened throughout the contest, it could be argued that it set the tone for the game. And as play reached its climax in the third period and overtime, Makar upped his game, setting up Mikko Rantanen for the opener and giving the Avalanche a 5-4 lead.
With just four minutes remaining, Zack Kassian scored to force the fight into overtime, but once again Makar’s imprint was all over the dominant game. Just a minute into overtime, Makar got another shot through traffic, Mike Smith missed after being diverted, and Lehkonen calmly hid his own rebound for the series winner as the Avalanche withstood the Oilers’ best shot.
Every metric, along with the eye test, would confirm that Game 4 was as balanced as one could hope for, expected goals in all situations with the slightest edges went to the Oilers while Zach Hyman had one of his best games of the year authored postseason. Every time McDavid, Draisaitl and Hyman were on the ice, the Oilers seemed poised to score. Individual talent in hockey can only take their team so far, and it’s only fitting that Lehkonen, a solid but unheralded take on the trade deadline, beat his side’s card to the finals.
Draisaitl struggles with horrific injuries in a valiant attempt to keep Oilers alive
You need your best players to be your best players in an elimination match, and Leon Draisaitl rose to the occasion in Game 4. He was the best player on the ice for the Oilers with four primary assists, despite struggling with an ankle injury and there were plenty of layers that were uncomfortable to look at.
We’re going to address the obvious concern here: We’re not trying to glamorize the idea of playing through pain, or any notion of masculinity associated with pain suppression, but the fact of the matter is that on a team that’s just as top-heavy as the Oilers Draisaitl will take on any shift that is offered to him. The responsibility rests with the Oilers medical team to rule him out, not the player himself. And we can’t analyze this game without addressing Edmonton’s most influential player, namely Draisaitl.
Draisaitl doesn’t rely too much on his skating to generate offense, and he’s been adept at picking apart Avalanche defense throughout the competition, and Hyman was the biggest beneficiary of that feat, going virtually unhindered on his two goals against Avalanche goaltender Pavel Francouz marched in. And despite the fact that he often hobbled onto the bench, Draisaitl was a threat on the rush as he sent two perfect passes to McDavid and Zack Kassian to score Edmonton’s third and fifth goals of the competition. McDavid could probably score from anywhere, but Kassian isn’t known for his touch, and the cross-ice zippers were a thing of beauty.
With a 5-on-5 record of 7:25, the McDavid-Draisaitl-Hyman line-up beat their opponents 6-4 with a 64.4 percent of expected goals. And while many have tried to argue that the Oilers are more than a two-man team, more scoring touch was badly needed outside of their star-studded front row.
There is no easy historical precedent for McDavid and Draisaitl’s 2022 run
During the inevitable Oilers season debrief there will be a broader analysis of the entire team and their mistakes, but you can’t help but feel drawn to McDavid and Draisaitl after the impressive individual performances they put up. How do you contextualize their size within the confines of a team sport? Some have argued that McDavid has a Steph Curry-like gravitational effect on the ice, and that may be true to some extent with certain possessions, but not over the course of an entire series. The sweep definitely proved that even when you have two of the game’s truly elite talents at their peak, you can still be beaten by a team that’s more stage-ready and has more depth across the board.
It has also been argued that McDavid is playing at the highest level anyone has ever performed at, which explains the tremendous depth and caliber of optimally trained athletes in the modern NHL. Praise as such invites lofty historical comparisons, and there is no simple precedent to explain McDavid and Draisaitl’s run. If you take the Oilers of the 1980s as a proxy for what this team aspires to be, the closest precedent would be the 1981 Oilers slamming the Los Angeles Kings in one of hockey’s most dramatic best-of-five series. If the Oilers had reached the Cup and lost, maybe you could say it was their 1983 moment when Gretzky and co. were coached by Mike Bossy and the New York Islanders only to avenge their loss the following year.
At the risk of being kicked out of the take factory, this sweep invites comparisons to McDavid’s peers. Sidney Crosby won his first trophy at 22, Gretzky overcame the hump at 23 and Mario Lemieux was 25, the same age McDavid is now. There’s probably something to be said for the “ring culture” that creates toxic analyses, but it’s not unreasonable to expect that the face of the league, which has been a household name in Canada for nearly a decade, will eventually lift the trophy.
These sometimes perhaps unfair expectations have been placed on the biggest stars in North American men’s sports, whether it be LeBron James or Peyton Manning or now, in this case, McDavid. McDavid’s aforementioned other-sports prodigies eventually got the ring to justify their cases being big time.
McDavid would slide into the Hall of Fame if he retired tomorrow, Draisaitl is on a similar but slightly different path.
However, the battle for a spot on hockey’s Mount Rushmore is a more volatile game, and that clock is ticking.
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