Flames searching for answers to McDavid, Oilers with Edmonton eyeing 3-1 series lead
The Calgary Flames need to figure out a way to at least begin to contain Connor McDavid.
The same goes for Leon Draisaitl. Evander Kane, too.
Because if they don't start putting up some roadblocks to slow down the Oilers captain and his scorching-hot linemates, the first playoff Battle of Alberta in 31 years could be over quicker than most thought possible — and with the opposite result.
McDavid, Draisaitl and Kane have combined for 55 points in 10 post-season contests this spring, including an outrageous 21 through three outings against the Flames in a second-round series Edmonton leads 2-1 heading into Tuesday's Game 4.
"We've got to be above them more, we've got to check better," Calgary defenceman Noah Hanifin said Monday. "That's a great line and (McDavid's) a great player.
"But we've just got to take away his strengths, which is his skating and (chances) off the rush."
A good skater in his own right, Hanifin was torched by McDavid in the neutral zone on the sequence that led to Kane's second of three goals during a frantic six-minute span in Sunday's 4-1 victory that nudged the Oilers ahead in the best-of-seven matchup.
"That's his game," Hanifin added. "You've just gotta be aware when he's on the ice and make sure you're not putting yourself in a position where you can get beat or you're vulnerable to his speed.
"The awareness is key."
Oilers interim head coach Jay Woodcraft, who loaded up his top line in Game 6 of Edmonton's first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings, is keenly aware what he's watching from the bench on a nightly basis isn't close to normal.
McDavid has 23 points in his 10 playoff games this spring, which is already more than the final totals of six post-season scoring leaders dating back to 2003.
The 25-year-old has somehow found another gear in these playoffs.
"I get a front-row seat," Woodcroft said. "What he's doing is special. He's inspiring every person in our organization to be the best that they can be, whether it's Richard in the mailroom or Shauna in HR.
"What he's bringing to the table each and every day, it is pushing this entire organization and our city forward."
What the Flames, who were among the NHL's best defensive teams during the regular season in topping the Pacific Division, will look to do Tuesday is try and put the brakes on what's been a runaway No. 97 train.
That includes getting back to an identity and foundation that's largely been lacking for a group on its heels since the second period of Game 2 when the Oilers opened the floodgates on the way to scoring four unanswered goals for a 5-3 victory following a wild 9-6 defeat in the opener.
McDavid established a new league record with his ninth multi-point game out of 10 to start a post-season Sunday, while Kane leads the NHL with 10 goals and became just the fourth Edmonton player to score multiple hat tricks in a playoffs, joining Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky.
And then there's Draisaitl, who's clearly nursing an injury suffered late in the L.A. series, but still has 19 points to sit second behind McDavid in the scoring race.
"We've just learned lessons over the last couple of years," Draisaitl said of a team finding its way. "As you get older and as you grow as a team, you just learn how to deal with these ups and downs. We're maturing."
Woodcroft said the Oilers faced "trials and tribulation" throughout the 2021-22 campaign.
"Some of which I was here for, some of which I wasn't," said the 45-year, a February replacement following Dave Tippett's firing. "But what I saw was a hardening of the group, a group coming together and concentrating on how to solve problems."
Calgary winger Milan Lucic — booted from Sunday's game in the third period after barrelling over Edmonton goaltender Mike Smith — said the Flames need to find a better balance against their provincial rival.
"Maybe our focus has been a little bit too much on the Oilers and we've started playing their game a little bit more than we've wanted," Lucic said. "All our energy and focus has to go into finding our game.
"When we do that, we give ourselves a really good chance."
Both clubs were in the same situation in the first round heading into Game 4. Edmonton subsequently lost 4-0 to the Kings in L.A. with a chance to go up 3-1, while Calgary rebounded from a pair of losses to beat the Dallas Stars 4-1 on the road and even that series.
"We should actually be grateful for the last round," Oilers defenceman Tyson Barrie said. "It can take teams a full year to learn a lesson like we did. We just know it's far from over. We have a great opportunity in front of us here to take a big step and a big lead.
"The last time we had that opportunity ... we weren't really even close to grabbing it."
Hanifin said the Flames take a level of comfort knowing they rediscovered their game at the same juncture two weeks ago.
The Stars, however, didn't have the Oilers' firepower.
"There's a lot of hockey left," Hanifin said. "We're excited about that challenge and an opportunity to tie it up and bring it back home."
All that's standing in the way is a team growing in confidence led by a player in McDavid seemingly reaching new heights on a nightly basis.
"The level he's raised his game to right now, I don't think we've seen that before," Barrie said. "I can't imagine what it's like trying to slow him down.
"Just glad he's on our side."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2022.
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