There’s a moment in every NHL playoff series where the momentum changes for good. It’s inevitable, but it never seems to come easy.
Sometimes the stars do the heavy lifting, as Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid did for much of the Edmonton Oilers 4-3 overtime victory over the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place on Thursday night, and those efforts crack the door open for the unlikely hero to change the course of a series.
Enter David Desharnais.
— Edmonton Oilers (@EdmontonOilers) April 21, 2017
Much maligned in Montreal, shipped to Edmonton at the deadline and slow to find his groove in an Edmonton sweater, it all came together for the 30-year-old Quebec native in the final 20 minutes of Game 5.
Desharnais had not scored in his last 17 games, dating back to March 14, but his fortunes quickly changed on Thursday as he and his fresh legs stuck the dagger in a fatigued San Jose team that was worn down by a steady, pulsating effort from the Oilers in the last 40 minutes.
It was Desharnais’ night, but make no mistake about it – this was a team effort from the Oilers if there ever was one. Fifteen players had multiple shots on goal and the Oilers registered a whopping 85 Corsi events at 5-on-5 against just 49 for the Sharks. Draisaitl found his edge again and McDavid was relentless, particularly in the final two periods as the younger, faster Oilers continued to grind down the Sharks.
But being a dominant possession team and tilting the ice doesn’t always guarantee victory, and as Martin Jones continued to stand on his head and the Sharks continued to swarm the puck in high danger areas in the third period, it looked like Edmonton might have to taste defeat despite being the better team.
That is until Desharnais combined with Oscar Klefbom on this clutch play for the ages.
Desharnais raced around the Sharks net with just under three minutes left in regulation and the Oilers trailing 3-2. With precious seconds ticking away he drew the defense and dished to Oscar Klefbom at the point who blasted a one-timer past Jones to tie the game and send Rogers Place into a frenzy.
The game was still tied, but San Jose was all but beaten.
“Just a hockey play,” Desharnais would later say, casually.
He has been a key offensive cog throughout much of his career, but he’s been on the decline and during his stint with the Oilers he’s been eating mainly fourth-line minutes and hasn’t played his best hockey. The fact that he was able to emerge as the Game 5 hero says a lot about the energy on the Oilers bench. Everybody is a part of this push in Edmonton; it’s all hands on deck.
Coach Todd McLellan praised the veteran for accepting his role, which includes no free lunches on the power play, and for being a good soldier for his teammates.
“He’s filling a role for our team,” said McLellan at the podium after the win. “He has to accept that, and I think he has accepted it—he’s become a better player because of that. Tonight was his night and we hope that he can continue it.”
After the Oilers pummeled the Sharks with shots in the overtime (the official shot count finished at 14-2 for the Oilers), Desharnais completed his dazzling evening by cutting through the Sharks defense and one-timing a saucer pass from Draisaitl past Jones to finish off an improbable Oilers win.
Draisaitl had his best game of the playoffs by far, with two assists and four shots on goal. He was on the puck all night and created several scoring chances with his ability to open space with sharp turns and cuts. It made perfect sense that his dish set up the game-winner.
Desharnais as the hero may not make as much sense, but it fits the team-first mentality of the Oilers since these playoffs have began. McDavid may be top dog, but don’t sleep on Zack Kassian or Desharnais.
“It feels amazing,” he said in a media scrum at his locker after the game. “I saw everybody was tired on the ice so I just jumped into the hole.”
Experience counts for a lot in the playoffs, but so does being in the right place at the right time. As track meets morph into chess matches, matchups and discipline become paramount. The Oilers were frustrated for most of this night by a team committed to shutting down their stars and a goalie that wanted to play the hero. But they stayed the course, stayed out of the penalty box and kept grinding.
Maybe an overtime goal by McDavid would have been a better storybook ending for the Oilers in this the biggest game of the star center’s young career. But the outcome and the fact that Desharnais got to shine might be better for this team in the long run.
Stars are necessary, but so are the invaluable contributions of the third and fourth line. If both continue to do their job, Edmonton could clinch its first playoff series win since 2006 on Saturday night in San Jose.
“Our group believes,” McLellan said before leaving the podium. “It didn’t look good for us but we kept at it. When we do that we’re a tough out.”