Oilers prove they can compete with best in West: ‘We’re right there’

DENVER — This was a good sign. A very good sign.

The Edmonton Oilers lost a 3-2 overtime game in Colorado on Deadline Day, but that late Nate MacKinnon goal was the only negative on what was one the Oilers’ finest nights of the season.

Perhaps their finest.

“That shows that we can play with anybody, when we’re on our best,” said Kailer Yamamoto, who was a dynamo on Monday. “Anybody.”

Yamamoto is a player transformed of late, with goals in five of his past six games, and he played like a young Theoren Fleury on Monday. By the time it was done, Mikko Rantanen, MacKinnon and an Avs teammate or two had gone out of their way to put an extra lick on the five-foot-eight winger who scored a goal, swiped a puck for a nice assist, and hit like a Smart car all night long.

He gave back as good as he got. He thinks…

“I’m not too sure. Hopefully I hit more guys, but I got hit quite a bit out there,” he chuckled post-game. “I mean, I’m trying to get under their skin, they’re trying to get under mine. I think I got under there a little bit.”

“He refused to be deterred by anything tonight,” marvelled head coach Jay Woodcroft. “He’s not the biggest man in the world, but he plays with a ton of heart. He is a smaller player, but he’s got a big trunk to him. So he’s willing to play inside the equipment and he hits hard. He gets under people’s nerves just through work ethic.”

This game was played at a pace seldom seen during the regular season, with enough contact to pass for playoff hockey. It was the National Hockey League’s best and perhaps most dynamic team versus a team featuring the league’s two leading scorers and a supporting cast that is showing signs of being able to properly support them.

Edmonton and Colorado went at it at break-neck speed, toe to toe, with an Avalanche defensive corps that has seldom been so physical and a group of Oilers forwards who just kept getting up off the mat and giving it back.

“We played well, we played hard,” said defenceman Cody Ceci. “I think maybe we took one too many penalties.”

It was the first meeting of the season between Connor McDavid’s and Nathan MacKinnon’s teams, and the first time these two have locked horns in 845 days. Much has changed, especially with a Colorado lineup that is a genuine Stanley Cup favorite, a roster littered with world-class players.

“They’re all great players, and they’ve definitely all evolved and gotten better over the years,” Ceci said. “I haven’t played against them in a couple of years. So yeah, it was good to see how competitive they are now and get a chance to play against them.”

Even better when you prove to yourself that your game stands up against Colorado’s. In a game where the Avs were likely a tad better than Edmonton, they also got huge breaks on all three goals to win.

“We were dialed in. I was pleased with the way we competed,” said Woodcroft, whose team is 5-0-1 in its past six games and moved another point ahead of the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday. “I don’t think we gave up a five-on-five goal (just 16 shots 5v5) tonight, and the first two goals went in off people’s bodies.

“We’re right there against the team that’s leading (the) NHL (in) points, in a tough building.”

Tyson Barrie nicely blocked a Rantanen pass while killing a penalty in the first period, but the puck returned right to Rantanen’s blade and he had half a net to shoot at for a 1-0 lead. With the score 1-1, Rantanen’s power-play shot hit Darnell Nurse and popped over Mike Smith for another bad-bounce goal.

Then in overtime, the pesky Nazem Kari deftly pulled Nurse’s helmet off. Nurse had to bolt for the bench, and watched helplessly while Cale Makar fed MacKinnon off a two-on-one for the winner.

The breaks beat the boys on this night, but they’ll come back Edmonton’s way if they continue to play this well, guaranteed.

“That was fun — probably one of the funnest games I’ve played in the NHL,” said Yamamoto, who had a goal, an assist and three minor penalties.. “It was quick. It was fast. Lots of plays being made. Good game. Tough we didn’t get the win but take away a lot of positives from it.

“That’s got to be how we play in the playoffs.”

Edmonton pulled to within a point of second-place Los Angeles, with a game in hand in the Pacific. The game they put out there on Monday will be difficult to replicate every night, but a reasonable facsimile will reap points om more nights than not.

And it should be said, Smith delivered his second consecutive flawless performance, a good sign on a team that is built around a goaltending tandem.

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