Before Game 4 at Climate Pledge Arena, with the Kraken trailing the Avalanche 2-1 in their first-round playoff series, players joked with one another that it was, in the words of Jordan Eberle, “the biggest game in Kraken history.” Well, as Seattle continues its first postseason journey, the stakes will get higher and higher with every passing game.
Now leading 3-2 and coming home for Game 6 with a chance to close out the Stanley Cup champions, it is safe to say Friday’s game is significantly bigger than any of Games 1 through 5.
“It’s huge,” said Yanni Gourde. “Game 6 at home, Friday night in Seattle. I mean, I think the crowd is going to be super excited.”
Gourde—a grizzled veteran of playoff hockey and a winner of two Stanley Cups in Tampa Bay—says the fourth win of a series is always the hardest one to get. “I think we still have more [to give], and I think we can still take steps and we can still build. But like I said, this game tonight is a big one. It’s going to be the hardest one of the series.”
Gourde also reminded us that several players in the Kraken dressing room have been in this situation before, and they know what it takes to close out a series.
Harnessing the excitement
If there is an added level of excitement for Kraken players, you couldn’t sense it in their dressing room Friday morning at Kraken Community Iceplex. Across the board, they seemed quietly confident and ready to go to work against a Colorado team that will be desperate to bring its best game.
The vibes from the team were “Normal,” according to the always even-keeled Adam Larsson. “Just another day,” he said. “We know what’s at stake, and we’ve played good so far. I don’t think we should overthink the situation and just go out and play the game.”
Larsson added the team knows the fans are on their side, so he hopes that will fuel the effort in Game 6. “They’ve done a tremendous job so far. I mean, now we know what to expect. I thought the first home game, we got caught up in the moment a little bit. We came home after a roadie, 1-1, pretty good spot, and we kind of came out flat that game. The second home game, I thought, was much better.”
The Swedish defenseman also said that even as of Friday, with the Avalanche pushed to the brink, the Kraken still do not sense any pressure, an advantage for any playoff team.
Jamie Oleksiak—who went to a Stanley Cup Final with Dallas—said the Kraken have handled the ups and downs well so far. “This is our first time in the playoffs together, so I think we’ve learned a lot as a group about identifying those momentum swings.”
Laying it all out there
One thing that stuck with us from Game 5 was just how good of a job Seattle did at blocking shots at crucial moments in the game. Jaden Schwartz, Oleksiak, and Matty Beniers all got body parts in the way of blasts from Avalanche players, then hobbled to the bench at different stages in the game.
Aside from that, Alex Wennberg showed off his impressive soccer skills (he does have a background in soccer from his youth) when he managed to corral a puck up the wall with only his feet and kick it deep in the Colorado zone in the final minute of the second period. “That was a huge play,” Gourde recalled.
It’s those kinds of extra individual efforts that help a team win in the postseason.
“I mean, that’s playoffs, right?” said Jamie Oleksiak, who played the last 2:27 of the game Wednesday with Seattle facing an extended six-on-five attack. “That’s kind of the desperation, and you got to get bounces once in a while, and you’ve got to put yourself on the line. I think we’ve done a great job of that.”
Oleksiak said it’s not just a few players stepping into lanes; even guys you wouldn’t typically associate with making those kinds of painful blocks have been throwing themselves in harm’s way. “Whenever you see a guy go down and put their body on the line, it’s special for everybody.”
Larsson occasionally skating with Oleksiak
We’ve noticed the Kraken coaching staff has deployed Larsson and Oleksiak together at times during this series, especially against Nathan MacKinnon. While we didn’t get much insight on the reasoning—coach Dave Hakstol played that close to the vest when we asked—we have a theory that the Kraken simply view those two as their best defensive defensemen. So, to shut down the elite skill of players like MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar, Hakstol and defensive coach Jay Leach have occasionally paired the two together for key moments in games to make sure they hold the Avs off the board.
“Yeah, it’s a matchup thing; that’s all, nothing more, nothing less,” said Hakstol. “I mean, it’s as well as I can describe it… The other piece that comes into play there is who’s fresh and ready to go over the boards.”
It’s been an interesting periodic shift, though, after Larsson and Vince Dunn spent almost the entire regular season together. It’s a fine example of how little strategic changes can be made in a playoff series, as you get the benefit of facing the same team for multiple games in a row.
“I’m playing with [Oleksiak] on the PK and end of a power play, or whatever it might be,” said Larsson. “So, I’ve had a couple shifts with him during the season, too, and it’s working fine. Whatever name is called, we’re all just sitting there, patiently waiting for our next shift, so that’s just how it is.”
No news on Jared McCann; Tye Kartye ready to play in his spot
Unsurprisingly, Jared McCann was still missing from morning skate, and we do not expect him in the lineup Friday. Hakstol did not give an update on his status, which tells us there is no change to his availability from Game 5.
Tye Kartye was the biggest story of Game 5 for playing in McCann’s spot on the top line and contributing with a pivotal goal, his first in the NHL. Now, the 21-year-old Kartye is preparing for his first home game as a Kraken. “I’m fired up,” Kartye said. “I heard the crowd is really good here, so I’m excited to see what it’s all about.”
Kartye scored on his lone shot on goal Wednesday to make it 2-1, but he was also physical and looked comfortable on his line with Eberle and Beniers. He called the last few days a “whirlwind,” and said he hasn’t had too much time to think about everything that has been going on for him. “I’m kind of just taking it as it comes.”
Based on what we saw and heard at morning skate, we do not expect any changes to the Kraken lineup from Game 5.