The Edmonton Oilers were taught a harsh lesson, one the Anaheim Ducks had learned too many times in recent years. Finish off a playoff series when you get the chance, or you will almost certainly regret not doing so.
Nick Ritchie scored the winning goal 3:21 into the third period as the Ducks defeated the Oilers 2-1 in Game 7 on Wednesday night to win their second-round series.
Anaheim will host the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Western Conference final on Friday.
Andrew Cogliano also scored and John Gibson made 23 saves for the Ducks, who had lost five consecutive Game 7s. That misery had been compounded by the fact that Anaheim held 3-2 series leads in each of the last four years, only to squander them every time and lose Game 7 at home.
This time, however, they passed any regret on to the young Oilers, who were left thinking about the three-goal lead they gave away in the final 3:16 of regulation of Game 5 among the critical turning points.
“Disappointing, especially it shouldn’t have even got to a Game 7 so, you know, it sucks to lose that one,” Oilers forward Milan Lucic said.
“Got to find a way to get over it.”
The Ducks hadn’t led at home in regulation since Mark Letestu tied up Game 1 at 1-1 by scoring 6:22 into the first, but Ritchie changed that early in the third by firing a wrist shot under Cam Talbot’s right arm.
Talbot made 28 saves for Edmonton before being pulled with 2:06 remaining.
Drake Caggiula had put the Oilers out in front early with his third goal in the last four games, challenged defenceman Shea Theodore as he took the puck out from behind the Ducks’ net. Caggiula’s stick struck the puck to put it over Gibson’s right leg and trickling in 3:31 into the first period.
While Caggiula’s opportunistic score had Anaheim playing from behind inside the opening 6:19 for the fourth year in a row, the Oilers could not come up with a second goal in the first 20 minutes to bring back memories of previous home-ice flameouts at Honda Center. The Ducks were inches away from tying the game late in the period, as the officials correctly saw that the puck barely crossed over the blue line to go offsides before Cam Fowler retrieved it and fired a shot past Talbot.’
View photos from Game 7 between the Oilers and the Ducks below:
Staying within striking distance gave Anaheim the confidence to respond. The Ducks finally succeeded in tying the game up 8:55 into the second. Talbot got turned around as Ryan Kesler was attacking the crease before ending up face down on the ice and in no position to stop Cogliano’s soft backhand swat of a loose puck.
“We held tight there,” Ritchie said. “We were down 1-0 for a little bit, and we didn’t panic. We actually started to play better once they scored.”
Cogliano’s first goal of the playoffs energized the home team and fans, forcing Kris Russell to block Antoine Vermette’s shot from sailing into an open net less than 30 seconds later. The Ducks kept the pressure on, with Ritchie and Rickard Rakell each getting great looks. Edmonton only seemed to recover in the closing minute, creating two chances before returning to the dressing room.
The response was too little too late, Caggiula said.
“We couldn’t really recover in the second, but we came back in the third with a good push,” Caggiula said.
“We just came up short.”
It should prove to be a valuable experience for the Oilers. They now understand how a team built on speed in the regular season must bring physicality in the playoffs and how any letdown can give an opponent new life. Connor McDavid hoped no one in the dressing room would forget what happened in the series and how it felt.
“Obviously it’s going to take some time to get over it. But I think there are a lot of positives we can take from this year,” McDavid said. “We won’t have to answer that experience question anymore, which is nice. Come next season we’ll find ourselves in a similar spot and be able to look back on this and feel that disappointment and know what that’s like.”
Still, even pushing the five-time defending division champion Ducks to a Game 7 was a victory as far as Talbot was concerned.
“I don’t think anyone gave us a shot that we’d be here right now, one period away from the conference finals, when we started this season,” Talbot said. “Proud to be a part of this group right now and looking forward to the future of this team.”
The Ducks acknowledged that the young Oilers led by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl should be a force in the Pacific Division for years to come. It will simply be a question of how quickly Edmonton learns the lessons of this series.
“They’re going to be a good team for a long time,” Cogliano said.
“(McDavid) and Draisaitl are as good as you’re going to get. They’re always going to get their looks, but I like to think we clamped down tonight when it really mattered.”
Oilers head coach Todd McLellan echoed the disappointment of his team before pointing to how well they had performed against two of the most experienced and tested teams in the Western Conference.
“We basically got a college degree in a month when it comes to the playoffs,” McLellan said.
Watch below: Some videos from Global News’ coverage of the Edmonton Oilers’ 2017 playoff series against the Anaheim Ducks.