DENVER â€” 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 Oilersâ€™ finest nights of the season.
Perhaps their finest.
â€œThat shows that we can play with anybody, when weâ€™re on our best,â€ said Kailer Yamamoto, who was a dynamo on Monday. â€œAnybody.â€
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 thinksâ€¦
â€œIâ€™m not too sure. Hopefully I hit more guys, but I got hit quite a bit out there,â€ he chuckled post-game. â€œI mean, Iâ€™m trying to get under their skin, they’re trying to get under mine. I think I got under there a little bit.â€
â€œHe refused to be deterred by anything tonight,â€ marvelled head coach Jay Woodcroft. â€œHeâ€™s not the biggest man in the world, but he plays with a ton of heart. He is a smaller player, but heâ€™s got a big trunk to him. So heâ€™s willing to play inside the equipment and he hits hard. He gets under people’s nerves just through work ethic.â€
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 Leagueâ€™s best and perhaps most dynamic team versus a team featuring the leagueâ€™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.
â€œWe played well, we played hard,â€ said defenceman Cody Ceci. â€œI think maybe we took one too many penalties.â€
It was the first meeting of the season between Connor McDavidâ€™s and Nathan MacKinnonâ€™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.
â€œTheyâ€™re all great players, and theyâ€™ve definitely all evolved and gotten better over the years,â€ Ceci said. â€œI havenâ€™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.â€
Even better when you prove to yourself that your game stands up against Coloradoâ€™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.
â€œWe were dialed in. I was pleased with the way we competed,â€ 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. â€œI don’t think we gave up a five-on-five goal (just 16 shots 5v5) tonight, and the first two goals went in off peopleâ€™s bodies.
â€œWeâ€™re right there against the team thatâ€™s leading (the) NHL (in) points, in a tough building.â€
Tyson Barrie nicely blocked a Rantanen pass while killing a penalty in the first period, but the puck returned right to Rantanenâ€™s blade and he had half a net to shoot at for a 1-0 lead. With the score 1-1, Rantanenâ€™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 Nurseâ€™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 theyâ€™ll come back Edmontonâ€™s way if they continue to play this well, guaranteed.
â€œThat was fun â€” probably one of the funnest games Iâ€™ve played in the NHL,â€ said Yamamoto, who had a goal, an assist and three minor penalties.. â€œIt 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.
â€œThatâ€™s got to be how we play in the playoffs.â€
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.