Elliott: Kings, Oilers learn Stanley Cup path not always smooth

Elliott Kings Oilers learn Stanley Cup path not always smooth

The only consistent factor throughout the first four games of the Kings’ Stanley Cup playoff series against the Edmonton Oilers was the lack of consistency for both teams from one game to the next.

A tense, one-goal victory for the Kings in the opener was followed by a resounding shutout for Edmonton at home in Game 2. The Oilers won by six goals in Game 3 at Los Angeles, though the Kings showed a few signs of life and awakened their dormant power play. They turned those stirrings into their most complete effort in the series and got a 31-save shutout performance by Jonathan Quick in a win Sunday night. The only common thread was the team that scored first won each of those first four games.

Both teams have found it impossible to establish momentum, instead finding themselves involved in swings from one tempo and result to the next one. When one coach found a successful bit of strategy, the other coach has found a way to counter it, leaving the teams even at two games each as the series resumed Tuesday night at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

Kings coach Todd McLellan worked with Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft in Detroit, San Jose and Edmonton, so it’s no surprise they’re familiar with each other’s thoughts and tendencies. But the changeable nature of play and results has been common around the NHL, except in Colorado’s sweep of Nashville.

“It seems to be a pattern throughout the league. I don’t know why it is,” Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said before Tuesday’s game. “I think it shows that each game is different. There’s not momentum between games.”

But there are constant adjustments. McLellan restored gritty winger Carl Grundstrom and conservative defenseman Troy Stecher to the lineup for Game 4 and scratched forward Andreas Athanasiou and rookie defenseman Jordan Spence. Those moves paid off when Stecher scored the Kings’ second goal and Grundstrom contributed the third and fourth.

McLellan made one lineup change, taking Gabe Vilardi out and putting Atnahasiou back in, but he said he was counting on the team’s execution to be better than it was in Sunday’s win. To play at the exact same level would be the same as slipping backward.

“I think when you’re in a playoff series, the only way you get to win it is you improve night after night, and we obviously didn’t after Game 1 and we didn’t after Game 2. I thought we did after Game 3, but that’s all in the past right now,” he said after his players took their usual optional game-day skate.

“Both teams are going to be aiming at improving and doing things better, and coaches will be talking to their teams and motivating them that, ‘We need to do this better or this harder,’ and it comes down to the players doing it now. If it stays the way it is, there’s nine periods of hockey left — without overtimes — and we can motivate, we can push all we want, but they have to get it done, and whichever team improves from night to night will probably end up winning.”

The Kings’ Carl Grundstrom, who scored two third-period goals Sunday, is upended in front of the Edmonton Oilers’ goal in Game 4.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Before being stymied by Quick, the Oilers hadn’t been shut out since Woodcroft succeeded Dave Tippett on Feb. 11. Woodcroft made some lineup changes Tuesday, notably moving winger Jesse Puljujarvi from the top line to the third line in favor of Kailer Yamamoto, a small but skillful and energetic player. “Sometimes when you didn’t play the way you wanted to, you shuffle the deck chairs, and that’s what we did today,” Woodcroft said.

The team that won Tuesday night will be able to close out the series Thursday night at Arena. If a seventh game is necessary, it will be played Saturday in Edmonton.

The Kings had set a goal of making the playoffs this season as proof to fans and players that the organization has made progress. By that definition, they’ve already had a successful season. As a bonus, their young players are getting playoff experience for future reference and valuable guidance from two-time Cup winner Dustin Brown, who will retire after the season.

The Oilers have been under immense pressure to make a playoff run while McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are in their primes, but the team hasn’t gotten past the second round since its loss in the 2006 Cup Final. They’re facing a moment of truth as they learn to handle adversity and prosperity and adjust to the frequent ups and downs of a playoff journey.

“I think as a series evolves, patterns emerge and there are small adjustments that get made on both sides,” Woodcroft said. “For us, our emphasis and our focus is on us and the things we can do better, and certainly there’s some areas that we’re focusing on.

“I think each game, the way it plays out is different. Each one of the four hockey games has played out differently. Even, there were differences between Game 2 and Game 3. For us, we’re looking to continue to grow our game and build our game out and there’s things we feel we can do better and we’re looking forward to implementing them tonight.”

This is when champions are formed, sometimes long before they’re crowned. The Kings and Oilers are learning in this series that the path to the Cup probably will never be smooth and might sometimes veer off in strange directions, and it’s up to them to navigate it with poise and presence.

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