The Edmonton Oilers held up their end of the bargain on Saturday night, winning 2-0 against the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2017. They will now wait – along with the rest of Canada – to see if the rival Calgary Flames can edge the Dallas Stars in the seventh game of their series on Sunday night to set up the first postseason Battle of Alberta in 31 years.
On the day that the Toronto Maple Leafs failed to escape the first round once again, Leafs alumnus Cody Ceci, a frequent lightning rod during one of those playoff failures two years ago, provided the solution for the Oilers, scoring the winning goal 13 minutes and 15 seconds into the second period. Captain Connor McDavid provided an insurance marker 3:53 from the end of the game, backhanding in a rebound to seal the series victory.
Ceci’s winner came just two days after another oft-embattled former Toronto Maple Leaf blueliner – Tyson Barrie – scored the winner in Game 6 in Los Angeles to keep the Oilers alive by forcing a Game 7.
But the Ottawa native was magnanimous in victory, choosing to take the high road after the game.
“I don’t want to compare it too much,” he said when asked about his thoughts about being on a winning playoff team on the day his former team lost again. “I played with a lot of those guys and had a great time there. They’re a bunch of great players. [It was a] different series. They had a great season. Yeah, I don’t want to compare it too much, sorry.”
Mike Smith, who became the first goalie to make his first Game 7 start after at least 600 regular-season starts, stood tall to protect that lead, making 29 saves for his sixth career playoff shutout. He became the second Oilers goaltender, and first since Curtis Joseph in 1998, to post a shutout in a Game 7.
The former Calgary Flame – he spent two seasons in Southern Alberta before being traded to the Oilers ahead of the 2019-20 season - wouldn’t be drawn on who he would rather face in the next round, choosing instead to enjoy the moment.
“I played on some good teams and played in the playoffs a little bit,” he said. “But to play a Game 7 at home and to win is obviously a moment that we’ll all remember for a long time.”
At the other end, Jonathan Quick suffered his first loss in a seventh game, entering the contest with a sparkling 4-0 record and a .940 save percentage. Though the 2012 Conn Smythe Trophy winner was spectacular on the night, making 39 saves, he couldn’t prevent his team from sliding out of the playoffs.
From start to finish though, there was only one player in Edmonton blue relentlessly driving the Oilers to the second round.
Coming off one of his most impressive games in an Oilers uniform in Game 6, McDavid looked determined to set the tone right from the opening faceoff. Whereas he put Edmonton on course for victory Thursday with a goal less than two minutes in, on Saturday night the NHL’s leading scorer decided to throw his weight around instead in an effort to put his club on the front foot, levelling Kings rookie Sean Durzi after just 22 seconds.
That hardly precluded McDavid from dominating in his usual fashion as well though. With fellow all-star Leon Draisaitl not at 100 per cent after being controversially taken down from behind in Game 6, the offensive onus fell squarely on McDavid’s shoulders. As almost always, he didn’t disappoint, playing a team-high 27:23 in the game, along with six shots and four hits.
Even after seven years in the league, four scoring titles and a string of highlight-reel moments, McDavid still finds new ways to dazzle, leaving some of his teammates reaching for the superlatives.
“He’s the best player in the world,” Draisaitl said afterward. “And I think he showed that in the last two games and I think it’s not skill - there’s lots of skill obviously with him, that’s a given - but it’s the will, right?
“You can see it in his eyes. You can feel it every shift that he’s out there. He’s determined and there’s just no way that he or us we were going to be denied, right, so he led the way. He was amazing.”
Predictably, McDavid was the driving force behind the opening goal, biding his time behind the net and eventually finding Ceci, who made no mistake with a seeing-eye shot over Quick’s shoulder for his second career postseason goal. It was McDavid’s playoff-leading 13th point in seven games, while Draisaitl also earned his fourth assist on the play.
The captain’s point was also his 10th assist of the first round, which pushed him into some elite company, joining Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier as the only Oilers to record at least 10 assists in a playoff series.
After sputtering in fits and starts throughout the series – losing Games 1 and 5 on home ice; dominating Games 2 and 3 by a 14-2 margin – the Oilers seemed to finally impose their superior skill throughout much of the second period, outshooting the Kings 25-10.
With just over 15 minutes remaining, Kailer Yamamoto had a chance to give the Oilers some breathing room, but his shot rang off the iron behind Quick.
But ever the man for the moment, McDavid cut around Quick’s net with under four minutes to play, and when the Kings netminder saved his first effort, the Edmonton captain calmly picked up the rebound and deposited it in the back of the net.
The 14 points in a playoff series is a new career high for McDavid, but the Edmonton captain was more focused on the collective victory after the game.
“It feels good to win a playoff round, it’s only my second that I’m a part of,” he said. “It doesn’t happen as regularly as you think, so it’s definitely a special feeling.”
Edmonton had lost its last two Game 7s, with many of the current group present when the team came up one game short against Anaheim in the 2017 Western Conference semifinal – while current Kings head coach Todd McLellan was still behind the Oilers bench - the mood seemed upbeat coming into this latest do-or-die matchup.
The fact it was on home ice – where the club is 3-1 all-time in Game 7s – likely factored into the feel-good factor around the game, with head coach Jay Woodcroft saying the team had chosen to frame it “as a great opportunity for us.”
After a dominant victory, one in which the Edmonton Oilers outshot the Kings 41-29, while managing to stay out of the penalty box for the entire 60 minutes, it’s safe to say that they took their opportunity.
Now the hockey world waits to see if their rivals to the south can do the same on Sunday.