NHL playoffs: Marchessault scores hat trick as Golden Knights eliminate Oilers

Edmonton has fallen short of the Stanley Cup once again, this time bowing out at the hands of Vegas.

The Golden Knights frustrated the Oilers on Sunday, eliminating Connor McDavid and Co. in six games to advance to the Western Conference final. (Canadian Press)
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There was rarely a dull moment in the Edmonton Oilers' playoff run, but exciting hockey doesn’t always translate to wins. Ultimately, the Vegas Golden Knights eliminated the Oilers in a back-and-forth Game 6 by a score of 5-2 on Sunday.

Some things stayed the same through much of this run. Almost every contest featured stunning moments, whether that meant trading blowouts or shocking plot twists. Connor McDavid and the Oilers power play basically looked unstoppable.

That said, the Oilers did not want every pattern to continue. All of that eye-popping offence was a double-edged sword, as opponents cut through their defence like a hot knife through butter, with Stuart Skinner often crumbling under the pressure.

Ultimately, one big change may have also made the difference. Leon Draisaitl put together an almost impossibly hot run for a round and a half, but he went cold in a way that showed just how hard it is to score in the playoffs — even for someone like Draisaitl.

It all started with a hot opening minute: a goal for each team, zero saves to kick things off for the goalies and precious few opportunities to catch your breath. The Golden Knights ended up taking the pivotal second period, however, and that ended up being the difference in Game 6.

What does it mean that the Oilers went with Stuart Skinner over Jack Campbell? Is this more about them rewarding Skinner for his season, showing him loyalty and prizing stability? Or is this a sign that they’ve lost faith in Campbell to this much of an extreme (or believe he needs a full offseason to put 2022-23 behind him)? Those questions linger regarding both decisions made in the pressure-cooker of this series, and also in pondering the future of this Oilers team.

Either way, the decision felt endangered right off the bat, as chaos behind his net led to a puck popping out perfectly to Reilly Smith for his second goal in as many games. Upon first viewing, you’d be excused if you assumed that Smith received a perfect setup from Nicolas Roy, but that turned to be figurative (creating chaos and a turnover) rather than literal (Smith’s goal was officially unassisted).

Falling behind 1-0 just 24 seconds into Game 6 with their season on the line, the Oilers could’ve slipped into a stupor. Connor McDavid wouldn’t let that feeling linger.

About 30 seconds after Smith's opener, Brett Kulak entered the Vegas zone and sent a well-timed pass to McDavid, who beat Adin Hill for a crucial 1-1 goal.

Less than a minute in, the teams combined for a goal each and not a single save. Remarkably, the Oilers made it 2-1 before three minutes of game time passed, as Warren Foegele completed a sequence that felt reminiscent of that 1-0 goal for Vegas.

The Oilers’ third line of Foegele, Derek Ryan and Ryan McLeod have been drumming up under-the-radar praise for their underlying numbers, but haven’t always notched the points that get you noticed. Their hard work paid off with that 2-1 goal, though.

After combining for three goals in less than three minutes, things settled down — relatively speaking — and the Oilers carried a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.

Naturally, beginning the second period down 2-1 wasn’t ideal for Vegas. That said, the Oilers have been such fast starters that a one-goal difference maybe wasn’t the end of the world. Including Game 6, the Oilers outscored opponents 23-14 in the first period, but entered Sunday’s game with a -3 differential (24 goals, 21 against) after the opening 20 minutes of playoff games.

Take that into consideration, and ponder that officials didn’t call any penalties in the first period, and the Golden Knights might have felt OK about themselves.

Whether it was confidence or coincidence, the Golden Knights charged back during the second period of Game 6. Already in a recent hot streak (five points in his past three games), Jonathan Marchessault scored two goals in quick, stunning succession to restore the Golden Knights’ lead to 3-2.

Skinner looked deflated and fatigued after sprawling to try to make the save on the 2-2 Marchessault goal.

A few minutes later, Skinner made an initial save with some difficulty, then Marchessault went to the blue paint to put Vegas up by one.

More than halfway through regulation in Game 6, the Oilers received the first power play of the contest. McDavid and the Oilers man-advantage couldn’t score on that opportunity, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying or decent chances. Natural Stat Trick placed their high-danger chances at three during that opportunity, yet Adin Hill & Co. survived that first PPO for Edmonton.

The penalties started to stack up after that icebreaker. Amid the disruptions (Vegas going to 5-on-4, Edmonton drawing a call to make it 4-on-4, then the Oilers taking another penalty), Marchessault completed his natural hat trick.

For all of the previous talk about fast starts for the Oilers, the Golden Knights have been Second Act Studs. Consider the way the second period played out in this series:

G1: no goals

G2: 1-0 for Edmonton

G3: 3-0 for Vegas

G4: 1-0 for Edmonton

G5: 3-0 for Vegas

G6: 3-0 for Vegas

In isolation, each of those second-period outbursts felt stunning. You can only deduce so much from such a small sample size, but there may be some evidence that the Golden Knights’ 5-on-5 edge became more pronounced when you factor in the long change of the second period.

For the third time in this series, and fourth time in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Skinner failed to make it through a full start. Aside from Campbell earning an OT win as the Oilers rallied against the Kings, he’s largely been in a no-win situation each time. Campbell only allowed two goals in four truncated appearances, most of which were difficult to truly judge because of score effects.

The Oilers and everyone else could only take so much from situations where the Golden Knights were in the lead, sometimes going into full turtle mode.

With that two-goal lead, the Golden Knights mostly went in that direction, putting a lot of pressure on their defensive structure and goalie Adin Hill.

As unproven as Hill is in this role as a playoff goalie, he was brilliant holding off Edmonton’s desperate push. The Oilers produced a 12-5 edge in shots on goal in the third period, but Hill was perfect to finish, ending up making 38 out of 40 saves.

Look at Draisaitl’s final stats, and the big picture is that he enjoyed an enormous playoff run, again. Most impressively, he scored more than a goal per game (13 in 12), finishing with 18 points overall. It stacks up nicely to last season’s 32 points in 16 playoff games.

But that meteoric offence came crashing back down to Earth, and people will wonder if injuries factored in thanks to the controversial Alex Pietrangelo slash. It sure looked like Draisaitl didn’t seem very receptive to Pietrangelo in the handshake line.

Either way, Draisaitl generated zero goals and one assist in his final four playoff games. Nitpickers will wonder if his even-strength issues are truly behind him, as he suffered with a -7 rating in that facet.

Zeroing in on Draisaitl alone is silly, though. Evander Kane’s only point in the series was a secondary assist in Game 6. Considering his 38 penalty minutes and all of the trash-talking, it’s fair to wonder if the physicality wasn’t such a positive thing for the power forward. Either way, he didn’t produce much when you factor how many reps he had with Draisaitl and McDavid.

Obviously, goaltending was porous and plenty of defencemen earned their fair share of criticism, including big-money blueliner Darnell Nurse. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and it will take time for people to focus on the many good things about this run following a bitter end.

Now, the Golden Knights await the winner of Monday’s Game 7 between the Seattle Kraken and Dallas Stars, while the Oilers hang their heads in disappointment, and wonder what comes next.