Following the Colorado Avalanche's 4-2 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, the Edmonton Oilers are one loss away from a sweep. After a six-goal outburst in Game 1, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl & Co. have managed just two combined in the following two contests.
Will the Oilers solve the Avalanche puzzle in Game 4 to start a major turnaround? Or will Colorado close things out and then get another extended break before hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final? Our panel weighs the big questions ahead of Game 4 (8 p.m. ET Monday, TNT).
What do the Oilers need to do to get back into the series?
Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: If these banged-up Oilers are to have any chance whatsoever of extending this series beyond four games, they need to be flawless in their own end. Perfect. No desperate, errant passes, no irresponsible wayward sticks, no misplays by the goaltender. There's been too much undisciplined play on behalf of Edmonton out front of Mike Smith to date, and the Avalanche have taken advantage.
Also, the Oilers need to stay out of the penalty box. Applaud the penalty kill all you like, but McDavid & Co. have a much better chance of scoring when they're not watching the kill from the bench. Altogether, Edmonton needs to play more disciplined defensively, while still working to stifle Colorado in transition as much as possible, to improve their odds.
Arda Ocal, NHL host: I'm not just saying this because of the astronomical mountain a 3-0 series deficit is to climb (only nine teams have forced a Game 7 after being down 3-0, and only four of those teams pulled off the reverse sweep), but the Avs just look like the better team, up and down the ice.
The easy answer would be production from your superstars and from Mike Smith in net, but Cale Makar alone has made Connor McDavid look pedestrian in certain instances, and that's an incredibly tall task for anyone to accomplish (given how many times McDavid has made all five opponents on the ice look like pylons on certain plays).
Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Overcoming a 3-0 series deficit is not impossible. It's more like, impossible-adjacent.
There's a special confluence of factors required for Edmonton to be one of those rare teams that recovers from such a huge hole. Fortunately, the Oilers have a top-end stable of talent surrounded by solid depth up front. Goaltender Mike Smith is pouring his heart and soul into every save to give his team a chance. Maximizing those positives will go a long way in determining whether there will be handshakes after Game 4 or another visit to the Mile High City.
How do the Oilers clean up their mess? By channeling the opportunistic Avalanche. Colorado has done more with its chances in this series. The Avs have played a more aggressive game. The urgency was there from Edmonton in Game 3; it was there for Colorado in Game 1. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can try strapping Edmonton to their backs and earning their first win. But that formula doesn't represent the Oilers at their best.
Yes, McDavid and Draisaitl need to drive the bus, but Edmonton's defensive buy-in has to match its offensive contributions. The Oilers put on a clinic in the neutral zone during their second-round series against Calgary. They've got nothing to lose now in the conference finals, so they should be mucking it up in all three zones and flinging every puck possible on Pavel Francouz. That's how the Oilers rattled Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom in the last round. Of course, the Avalanche have a deeper team than Calgary, but Edmonton is deep, too. They just aren't showing it often enough.
Bottom line: The Oilers have to let their stars shine, but there's a lot of work to be done in the trenches by everyone in Game 4 (and potentially beyond). Making Colorado uncomfortable -- if that's possible -- is their most likely way through.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: The first thing the Oilers need to do is hire a faith healer to mend Leon Draisaitl's injury, which we all assume is a bum ankle. He was clearly laboring in Game 3. He hasn't scored a goal since Game 2 of the series against the Flames. He had two shots on goal and just three total shot attempts in Game 3 against the Avalanche, who are too deep offensively for the Oilers to have a 55-goal scorer like Draisaitl become a nonfactor, as he has been for the past two games.
The second thing the Oilers need is for Smith to pull a rabbit out of his hat. Like Draisaitl, he didn't look 100% healthy during Game 3, but if there's anything we know about Smith it's that he's a battler. We also know he's a goalie who makes adventurous saves look routine and turns routine saves into adventures. The Oilers can't afford another effort in which Smith deflates their momentum by allowing a goal on a stoppable shot, or else their postseason is over. The good news is that Smith can deliver a beauty when you least expect it.
The third thing they need is to buck one of the most reliable trends in Stanley Cup playoffs history. Heading into Sunday, teams that take a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven hold an all-time series record of 198-4 (.980). Teams that take a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series when starting at home hold an all-time series record of 144-3 (.980).
Like Kristen said, "impossible-adjacent." But mostly impossible.
Who is the Avs' MVP thus far this postseason?
Victoria Matiash: Cale Makar is the correct answer, but let's give forward Nazem Kadri his due for his performance at both ends of the ice throughout this postseason. Game 2 is a different story if Kadri, an elite playmaker, doesn't contribute three assists in a span of under three minutes in the Avs' 4-0 win. That's just a sample of what this top-notch center has managed to muscle out under an ugly shroud of racist social-media messages.
Colorado might very well win the Cup eventually, and Kadri, despite possibly missing the rest of the games after taking a hit from behind in Game 3, will still be a big reason why.
Arda Ocal: I would have chosen Makar, but in the interest of differentiating my answer I'll go with Pavel Francouz, who has posted a .920 save percentage and allowed five goals in two-plus games against the Oilers after relieving an injured Darcy Kuemper in Game 1. And if nothing else, "Frankie, Frankie" chants from the Denver faithful have solidified him as an unlikely folk hero.
Kristen Shilton: Cale Makar. We knew Makar was dynamic, but he has been stunningly good against two of the game's best in McDavid and Draisaitl. In this series especially, we've seen his ability to not only defend at an elite level, but create space to make plays and tilt the ice in Colorado's favor. Makar is a primary reason Edmonton is in the position it is. Colorado has shown inconsistencies, but Makar has been reliable throughout.
You can see on the other side how difficult it has been for the Oilers to manage an injured Darnell Nurse. A team's top defender is incredibly important this time of year. Every shift Makar takes, he's oozing confidence and is a true threat to dominate. It has been a treat to watch.
Greg Wyshynski: I think Makar has the inside lane for the Conn Smythe Trophy if the Avalanche win the Cup, but there are two other names worthy of a shout out here.
One is obviously Nathan MacKinnon, who is tied with Makar at 17 points and has 10 goals in the postseason, including two in this series. He remains a driving force on the ice whose singular focus off the ice -- saying things like, "We're 0-0 heading into the next game," and meaning it -- also drives the Avalanche.
The other is a bit of a preemptive pick: J.T. Compher, who has five goals -- all of them coming in the past four games. With Nazem Kadri out for the series and potentially beyond it, Compher could be tasked with filling his role. He did it admirably in Game 3, and he could be an under-the-radar MVP candidate if that continues.
What's your final score prediction for Game 4?
Victoria Matiash: 4-2 Oilers. The superior team is beset with a touch of subliminal complacency, up 3-0 on the road. Connor McDavid wills his team to capture one last taste of glory at home.
Arda Ocal: 9-6 Avalanche. Alright, this is more because I want this to happen; Game 1 was a ton of fun, so why not hope for another high-scoring game? Either way, my prediction is that the Avs complete the sweep.
Kristen Shilton: 3-2 Oilers. Edmonton has been resilient in this postseason. The Oilers lost a heartbreaker in Game 3, and probably deserved a better result. I'll bet they get at least one before it's over.
Greg Wyshynski: 5-3 Avalanche. While I think a gentleman's sweep isn't an outlandish prediction, we might have seen the Oilers' best effort in Game 3 -- and it still wasn't enough. Colorado is on another plane of postseason existence right now. Expect them to play another strong, efficient road game. Or as MacKinnon framed it, one that's "boring and gross."