Nugent-Hopkins scores twice, Oilers survive Smith's blunder to grab 3-1 series lead
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has suffered through plenty of heartache in the Alberta capital.
The top pick at the 2011 draft missed the playoffs in seven of his first eight NHL seasons as the Edmonton Oilers repeatedly fumbled and bumbled their way through what must have felt like a never-ending rebuild.
After a stunning turn of events midway through Tuesday's third period that could have heaped more pain on a once-proud franchise dreaming of a return to glory, its longest-serving player rose to the occasion when he was needed most.
Nugent-Hopkins' second goal of the night with 3:27 left in regulation was the difference after Oilers netminder Mike Smith stunningly whiffed a shot from the other end of the rink to tie the score as the Oilers defeated the Calgary Flames 5-3 to take a 3-1 lead in the teams' second-round playoff series.
"The main thing was that we had to keep pushing," Nugent-Hopkins said after Rasmus Andersson scored short-handed from 150 feet away to claw the visitors all the way back from a 3-0 deficit. "Stuff like that happens, it's hockey. Bounces happen.
"There was no quit."
Edmonton interim head coach Jay Woodcroft credited Nugent-Hopkins, who was playing just the 32nd playoff game of his 11-season career, for stepping up with the team wobbling.
"It's inspiring," said Woodcroft, whose Oilers are now one win from making the Western Conference final for the first time since 2006. "There's room for greatness from everybody on our team.
"Tonight was Ryan's moment."
Evander Kane, with his NHL-best 11th and 12th goals of the post-season, and Zach Hyman also scored for Edmonton, which got 29 saves from Smith. Leon Draisaitl added three assists to become the first player in NHL history to register three-plus points in four straight playoff games.
Connor McDavid set up two goals to give him a league-topping 25 points in 11 post-season outings this spring for the Oilers, who kept the foot on the gas with a third straight victory over their provincial rival.
Andersson, Elias Lindholm and Mikael Backlund had the goals for Calgary, which will look to stave off elimination in the first post-season Battle of Alberta in 31 years Thursday at home in Game 5.
Jacob Markstrom stopped 21 shots.
"We all believe in this group," Andersson said. "We've been a good team all year and we've been strong on home ice. We've just got to go home and focus on winning one game and take it from there.
"Obviously we're in a tough situation."
After trailing 3-0 after the first and 3-2 through 40 minutes, Calgary improbably knotted things in the third on an Edmonton power play when Andersson fired a clearing attempt from his own end that somehow fooled Smith at 10:56 inside a shocked Rogers Place.
But the Oilers pushed back late in the third, with Nugent-Hopkins shovelling home his fourth of the playoffs from Markstrom's doorstep to send the nervous crowd into a frenzy.
Andersson then took a four-minute penalty for high-sticking with 2:40 left to effectively kill off the game before Kane iced it into an empty net.
"I can laugh now, right?" a relieved Smith said as throngs of Edmonton fans cheered wildly on the street outside the Oilers Hall of Fame Room where the team conducts its media availabilities. "I don't think there's been a time in my career where I've lost the puck, where I have no idea where it went.
"You don't want that to happen ... ever. It was an unbelievable goal by Nuge at the end there ... a win is a win."
Edmonton, which is looking for its sixth Stanley Cup and first since 1990, also held a 2-1 series lead in the first round against the Los Angeles Kings only to play what the Oilers described as their worst performance of the month in a 4-0 loss.
They won't be thrilled with this performance either, but they secured the victory for a stranglehold on the series.
"Every game you play in the playoffs, you gain experience," Smith said. "There are ebbs and flows to a game, to a series, and they are all learning experiences."
There has been lots of talk from the Calgary side about how McDavid, who has indeed raised his sky-bar to new levels in these playoffs, was the only reason the Oilers were ahead in the series.
The 25-year-old superstar has certainly been his team's catalyst, but Edmonton showed on this night there's plenty more to its roster than just No. 97.
"Hockey is the ultimate team sport," Smith said. "Connor is the best player in the world and is going to do some damage out there, but he can't stay on the ice for the whole game. There are a lot of other players playing important roles."
"You can't win with one or two guys," Nugent-Hopkins added. "You need everybody pulling on the same rope."
Markstrom, who had allowed 14 goals in the series before getting pulled after two periods with Calgary trailing Sunday's Game 3 by a 4-0 score line, played the puck behind his own net on the first shift, but put it right on Nugent-Hopkins' stick for him to bury his third inside a deafening arena.
The goal was the third-fastest in Oilers' playoff history, just short of McDavid (19 seconds in 2020) and Fernando Pisani (16 seconds in 2006).
One of three finalists for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goalie, Markstrom recovered to deny Darnell Nurse on a chance a couple minutes later before Smith was at full stretch on a Johnny Gaudreau one-time chance.
Calgary winger Tyler Toffoli then took a tripping penalty and the Oilers made the visitors pay when Hyman outmuscled a hobbled Chris Tanev — back in the lineup for the first time since Game 6 of the opening round despite a suspected upper-body injury — in tight to bury his fifth of the series and seventh of the playoffs at 9:53.
The Flames, who topped the Pacific Division in the regular season, responded with a couple of decent shifts, but Kane, who was coming off a natural hat trick in Game 3, made it 3-0 with 66 seconds remaining in the period on a shot that nicked off blue-liner Nikita Zadorov.
Calgary finally showed some life on slick power play in the second with Kane off for slashing, and Lindholm eventually picked the top corner for his fifth at 9:04 after the Oilers twice failed to clear the defensive zone.
Backlund got the Flames within one at 3-2 just 36 seconds later when he stepped past Duncan Keith and fired his fourth past Smith.
Smith made a good stop on a Lindholm power-play chance early in the third before the home side got its second man-advantage with 11 minutes left in regulation.
Markstrom kept his team within striking distance with a terrific pad stop on Draisaitl to set the stage for Smith's howler and Nugent-Hopkins' late heroics for a battle-scarred team and city that's starting to believe.
"It's never perfect," Smith said. "It's how you handle it and battle through the adversity and stick together.
"We're doing that."
Especially in the toughest of moments — like Tuesday's crazy, chaotic finish.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2022.