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Suspension fallout: Oilers, Knights adjust to absence of top defencemen for Game 5

LAS VEGAS — The Edmonton Oilers chose their words carefully on the suspension front Friday while defenceman Brett Kulak prepared for an increase of playoff minutes in the absence of Darnell Nurse.
Edmonton Oilers defenseman Brett Kulak (27) and Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Dysin Mayo (61) vie for the puck during the first period of Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup second-round playoff series Wednesday, May 3, 2023, in Las Vegas. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-John Locher

LAS VEGAS — The Edmonton Oilers chose their words carefully on the suspension front Friday while defenceman Brett Kulak prepared for an increase of playoff minutes in the absence of Darnell Nurse.

The Oilers knew before departing Edmonton the previous day that Nurse would serve a one-game suspension in Friday's Game 5 for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4.

The announcement that Golden Knights' defenceman Alex Pietrangelo would also serve a one-game suspension for slashing Leon Draisaitl across the arms with 93 seconds remaining had come later Thursday.

While debate over the severity of each player's crimes and the NHL's rationale for its discipline decisions raged on social media, both clubs prepared to play without a premier defenceman and the series tied at two wins apiece.

"It's crazy," Kulak said Friday before the game. "Both teams losing their top D. 

"You don't see it too often, but it's the situation we're in." 

Kulak has been called on to replace some of Nurse's minutes before.

Nurse was suspended for Game 6 of last year's first-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings for head-butting Philip Danault.

The 29-year-old Kulak, from Stony Plan, Alta., saw his ice time jump to over 21 minutes from his regular-season average of 15 and a half in a 4-2 road win to tie the series.

"It's an experience we went through. It's the exact same thing right?" Kulak said. "He had a suspension last year and we got the job done. We're all capable of taking on more and doing more.

"You don't need to change your game. You know you're going to be given more shifts, but keep your game the same, keep playing well and rely on my strengths and things that are helping the team win games."

Ben Hutton was expected to draw in for Pietrangelo and make his first appearance in the series.

The 30-year-old from Brockville, Ont., made his NHL playoff debut in Game 5 of the Knights' first-round series against Winnipeg.

"Both teams have lost a big-minute defenceman at the same time," Vegas head coach Bruce Cassidy said. "That will be the story tonight in-game and we'll see who is able to overcome that better."

Tempers, punches and extracurricular stickwork escalated at the end of Game 3.

Not long after Pietrangelo laid lumber across Draisaitl's wrists, Nurse fought Vegas defenceman Nicolas Hauge with 50 seconds remaining.

Nurse said Hague invited him several times during the game to fight.

Edmonton head coach Jay Woodcroft said Friday his opinion was unchanged in that he saw two willing combatants in Nurse and Hague.

"I stand by my comments the other night," Woodcroft said. "I feel the same way."

Oilers captain Connor McDavid had said that Pietrangelo deserved a suspension.

McDavid's response to the suspension math of a defenceman for a defenceman was: "probably feel the way a lot of Oiler fans feel."

An opposing player blowing a gasket is a sign that constant Oiler pressure is having a desired effect, Woodcroft said.

"I believe when we're playing the game the right way, we put hard miles on the other teams d-corps, and part of the hard miles is not only do they have to go back and get (the puck), but there's going to be a physical investment,' the coach said. 

"What you see as series moves along is those investments start to pay dividends. And we saw one of them at the end of the end of the game the other day when their player was undisciplined."

Oilers forward Evander Kane, a prime Vegas antagonizer in the series, echoed his coach's sentiment.

"I think there's lots of different ways you can wear teams down. Physicality is certainly one of them," he said. 

"How somebody reacts to that is definitely out of my control and out of our team's control."

Nurse and Pietrangelo are set to return to their respective teams' lineups for Sunday's Game 6 in Edmonton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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