Matheson: Oilers have to get to Bobrovsky in Game 2, among other things

Like Darnell Nurse, who shockingly had the fewest minutes of any Oilers defenseman in Game 1 and his partner Cody Ceci have to play better. Same with Evander Kane

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When you lose Game 1 of an NHL playoff series, there are always a lot of “yeah buts” and “what ifs” but when it’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, they’re in capital letters.

So, while Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky made saves that would have made Dominik Hasek proud in a perfect 32 shot, 32 stop night against the Edmonton Oilers Saturday, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the rest of the supporting cast have to find a way to beat him in Game 2, or this could be a short series.

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While Stuart Skinner was good, Bobrovsky was great in the first game. While the Oilers had little to hang their heads about after an excellent game, they couldn’t score. It’s never a good thing when people are saying you have to go blocker side on Bobrovsky (Kelly Hrudey) or you have to shoot high because he seems to vacuum up every shot along the ice.

It can mean the other guy is in their heads, but…

The Oilers have to get to Bobrovsky in Game 2, among other things. Like Darnell Nurse, who shockingly had the fewest minutes of any Oilers defenseman in Game 1 and his partner Cody Ceci have to play better. Same with Evander Kane, who is playing hurt and is nowhere near the impactful forward he was two years ago when he hit everybody and had 13 playoff goals.

‘He definitely made some big saves’

But, back to Bobrovsky. The Oilers had three times the high-danger chances, even-strength, on the power play (18-6) than Florida in Game 1, according to Natural Stat Trick. And, they lost three-zip. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had a breakaway on the powerplay in the first period, and Bobrovsky made a pad save. Adam Henrique was in alone in the opening period and Bobrovsky got his pad out, both on deke attempts.

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Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers
SUNRISE, FLORIDA – JUNE 08: Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Florida Panthers makes a save against Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers in Game One of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final at Amerant Bank Arena on June 08, 2024 in Sunrise, Florida. Photo by Bruce Bennett /Getty Images

Oilers goalie coach Dustin Schwartz knows the book, chapter and verse, on where Bobrovsky is vulnerable (31 of 38 goals allowed in the playoffs are high shots), but they didn’t get it done in Game 1. Best laid plans, and all that.

“Schwartzy definitely gave us some stuff and he’s so good low,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Obviously if I could do it again, I’m going to try and get the shot over his pad. If I have a little more time, I probably do it a little bit different, in the moment.”

“Even then he’s really quick side-to-side, an athletic goalie who’s going to take up most of the bottom of the net. We had a few looks like that, where you think you got him but he doesn’t quit on it.”

The opposing coach never wants to give the other goalie a high-five, though. So, when asked if Bobrovsky had stolen Game 1 (he did), Kris Knoblauch went with the tried and true, just the facts. No pompoms after the Oilers were shut out for the first time in 19 playoff games this spring.

“He definitely made some big saves, fair to say he played really well,” said coach Knoblauch, who doesn’t buy the idea that any goalie can get into his team’s head, though. Probably because he has 97 and 29, along with the birthday boy Zach Hyman and Evan Bouchard with his bombs.

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“It’s just a reminder we’ve seen goalies put on really good performances,” he said, “and yeah, from game to game it always changes. If we’re playing well, it’ll go our way. As good as any goaltender can play against us, we’ll get some production.”

Evander Kane #91 of the Edmonton Oilers
Evander Kane #91 of the Edmonton Oilers warms up before a game against the before the game against the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the Western Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on June 02, 2024 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Leila Devlin /Getty Images

Clearly, the Oilers need more of that from Kane. In the pre-game warmup Saturday, he deftly picked the puck up on the blade of his stick and flicked it over the glass to a little guy in an Oilers jersey, McDavid nameplate, of course.

But, in the games, his scoring hands have deserted Kane(no goals in eight games), who has also said he’s been playing with a sports hernia (he’s had a series of maintenance days, not just in playoffs) so his usual rambunctious, hard-skating style has been off, too.

There’s a fine line between letting a player play through a medical issue (he may have aggravated the problem on a hard hit on Alex Petrovic in Game 6 of the Dallas series, playing 4 ½ minutes) and wondering if he has to sit a game, but it hasn’t come to that for Kane.

“Obviously he’s not the Evander Kane of a couple of years ago or even when I came here, he was scoring at will then, he was putting up a pretty good season,” said Knoblauch, who saw Kane score twice against LA in round 1 and two against Vancouver in round 2, but nothing since (four goals on 38 shots).

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“Yeah, it’s unfortunate for any player, any time you battling with something, it takes away from your game, no matter if you’re a skilled, speedy forward, a defensive forward or a power forward. It takes a toll on you, it’s tougher to find your game,” said Knoblauch.

“I think he’s been contributing and maybe not showing up on the scoresheet as much as he has in the past, but still contributing to our team and I don’t think we’d be where we are today, we wouldn’t be in the Stanley cup final if Evander hadn’t been playing throughout the playoffs.”

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Nurse’s struggles have been well-documented throughout the post-season. He’s been victimized by some terrible bounces, shots off skates and other body parts for opposing goals and had no chance on 2-on-1s or 3-on-2 breaks. And he had a huge bounce-back game against Dallas in Game 4 of the Western final. But, he’s still -15 in 19 games, and they badly need him at the top of his game to beat Florida.

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“First off, I think Darnell is a super pro and he works so hard to make sure he’s on the right side of things and I’m sure his luck is going to come,” said Mattias Ekholm.

“There’s games where you step on the ice and you feel like it’s going to happen a goal against. When you have one of those games, there seems to be like five or six. You’ve just got to make sure you stop it. We’re in the Cup final now.”

“He’s heavily relied upon in our team, and you don’t get to this point without guys playing well. What’s really impressive is the way he shrugs it off (bad breaks). I mean he had 12 hits the one night. He’s an impactful player for us,” said Ekholm.

Knoblauch has certainly tracked the Nurse-Ceci partnership throughout the playoffs. Maybe it shakes it up in Game 2.

“We look at players involved in scoring chances for and against and if a player has a good game, obviously they’re in the plus,” he said. “I guess if you look at actual goals scored for and against, it’s not favourable. The expected goals for and against doesn’t paint the same picture, at all. Completely different.”

“As for the match-up next game, we haven’t made any decisions yet.”

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