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Can Oilers find success by sending Kassian to hound Colorado’s Makar?

EDMONTON — It looks like the Edmonton game plan is clear: Pound Cale Makar.

In an attempt to get some physical pressure on the elusive Avalanche defenseman, Zack Kassian skated on the Oilers’ top line with Connor McDavid and Evander Kane. Makar plays most of the night against McDavid, and that alignment means that whatever corner the puck gets dumped in, a fast-skating, hard-hitting winger should be flying in there to put the body on Colorado’s most valuable defenseman.

“If (I) get a chance to ride shotgun next to the best player in the world, you’ve got to take advantage of it. I’ve had success before,” said Kassian, whose ability to drive the net has been rewarded by McDavid passes in the past. Typically, he’ll shake a puck loose in the corner, get it to No. 97

“Anytime you have the opportunity to finish your check you want to,” said Oilers head coach Jay Woodcroft, who would not promise that the morning skate lines would stand up in Game 3. “Physicality is a way to take some steam out of people , and we’ve had good opportunities to get our licks in. But the important thing is, you want to make sure you’re not getting beat back up the ice. Those will be the focal points for us.”

Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar made it clear that Makar won’t shy away from contact, but because of that aforementioned elusiveness, implementing the plan often isn’t easy for opposing teams.

“It’s got to be very difficult. I mean, you got a guy that skates the way he does and is as elusive as he is,” said Bednar. “You know, pressure is one thing but he seems to be able to make a play. When he’s under pressure when he’s got his back turned he just uses his skating ability, his knowledge of reading through the forecheck to be able to find it out.

“You know, we’ve talked about it a lot, Cale’s not scared of physical play. He’s able to take it, he’s able to dish it out. Sometimes he elects not to and uses his skating and his stick to defend but other times he can be a real physical player if that’s what he reads in the play and what the player requires. So you know, he feels pretty comfortable going back when he’s under pressure.”

No one is fooling anyone here: the Oilers are in must-win territory, down 2-0 in this series.

They know it, we all know it.

“You can’t find yourself down 3-0 in a series,” McDavid admitted. “We have to find a way to get a win tonight. We’ve done a lot of responding in these situations. I would expect the same thing tonight.”

Said Kassian: “People can say it’s just another game, but it really isn’t. Our season’s on the line. It’s important for us not to go down 0-3 against a really good hockey team over there. I think these are things and moments that you embrace as a player.”

•••

It’s hockey’s playoff cliché: “We have the best fans in the league!”

Everyone has good fans at this time of year, but they only help if you can keep them in the game.

“Energy’s energy but when you’re the away team and that goal horn keeps going off, it’s a plus for the home team. Sometimes it can feel like the ice is slanted,” said Kassian. “Every building in the playoffs is loud. Every team feels like they have the best fans. It’s just a matter of channelling. We saw that in Round 1 against LA We came out, we were almost too excited, we were making mistakes, weren’t playing to our structure and it ended up costing us.

“I think we’ve learned from previous series and we’re excited tonight. It’s going to be a lot of fun and we all have to be at our best.”

We’ll admit, there is something about a Canadian rink in June, with fans starting the party early on a Saturday afternoon and bringing that energy into an 18,500-seat madhouse. Folks in Edmonton, they haven’t seen their team in the Western Conference finals since 2006.

Rogers Place should provide an edge that goes further than last change tonight.

“I don’t know if it’s a match up thing,” said McDavid. “It’s just comfortable playing in front of our fans. The building is electric. Lots of energy. We really feed off it.”

The Avalanche expect the Oilers to show plenty of urgency, given the circumstances.

“I expect us to see their best game tonight,” said Bednar. “They’re back home. We did a nice job in our building and our goal is to go and repeat or better the performance that we had from the other night. The intensity will get cranked up here no question as the series moves on. And we have to be prepared for that.”

As for the matchup game, the Avalanche have done a great job of getting Makar and partner Devon Toews out against McDavid’s line. Whether Bednar can continue to do that on the road will be one of the storylines worth watching in Game 3.

The top priority for the Avalanche won’t change though.

“We know that we have to check on the road first and foremost,” said Avalanche forward JT Compher. “We’ve talked about it before, they can have the matchup advantage but when every line’s checking and getting back to the D zone as five and breaking the puck out better, we’re still going to get to our game. We still want to play fast and create chances, but it starts on the defensive side of the puck.”

The Avalanche are a perfect 5-0 on the road this season (while outscoring their opponent 26-13) and they seem to be excited about stepping into a hostile environment with an opportunity to try and take a 3-0 lead in the Western Conference finals.

“I think we enjoy playing on the road as well. It’s definitely a different animal,” Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog said on Friday. “It’s almost a challenge to come into a building like that, and this is going to be a tough, tough atmosphere to play in, no doubt. But (it will) be a lot of fun, and I’ve said it before but when you when you go on the road, especially in the playoffs, you tend to simplify things a little bit. You really got to make sure your systems are in check and you’re sticking to the plan, and that’s what we’re looking to do. We’re excited for the challenge to head on the road here.”

•••

Oilers forward Kailer Yamamoto (suspected concussion) and defenseman Darnell Nurse (core issue) did not skate Saturday morning. We suspect that Nurse will play, but we’ll have to wait until game time to see if that Game 2 hit from Landeskog has taken the feisty Yamamoto out of Edmonton’s lineup.

We also don’t know if Woodcroft will dress 11 forwards and seven defensemen, with Nurse struggling.

For the Avalanche, forward Andre Burakovsky (suspected foot injury after blocking a shot from Oilers defenseman Evan Bouchard in Game 1) is expected to miss a second consecutive game, which means Nicolas Aubé-Kubel remains in the lineup on the third line with Compher and Alex Newhook.

Here’s how Edmonton lines up, based on their morning skate:

1. Kane-McDavid-Kassian

2. Hyman-Draisaitl-RNH

3. Foegele-McLeod-Puljujarvi

4. Ryan-Shore-Archibald

1. Nurse-This

2. Keith Bouchard

3. Kulak Barrie

G: Smith (Koskinen)

Here’s how the Avalanche are expected to start:

1. Landeskog-MacKinnon-Nichushkin

2. Lehkonen-Kadri-Rantanen

3. Newhook-Compher-Aube-Kubel

4. Cogliano-Helm-O’Connor

1. Toews-Makar

2. J. Johnson-Manson

3. Byram-E. Johnson

G: Francouz (Annunen)

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