Oilers tie series, praise Nurse for 'character' game

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse entered Game 4 of the Western Conference finals under intense scrutiny for his ineffective play against the Dallas Stars. Things could not have gone worse for him at the start.

Nurse was on the ice for two Stars goals in the first 5:29 Wednesday night, including an Esa Lindell shot that hit Nurse’s posterior and deflected past goalie Stuart Skinner.

But he didn’t sulk. He didn’t fold under the pressure. That Nurse played as well as he did for the rest of the Oilers’ 5-2 series-tying victory ended up inspiring his team.

“That would’ve been really hard for a lot of guys to recover from after everything that’s been going on,” Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch said. “But personally, I thought it was his best game in the series. Maybe in the playoffs.”

Nurse entered Game 4 through a storm of criticism. No Oilers player was on the ice for more Stars goals at 5-on-5 than Nurse (4 goals). He was in the negative across the board in shot attempts and scoring chances at even strength. Skinner had a .852 save percentage when Nurse was on the ice.

While plus/minus doesn’t paint a full picture of a player’s performance, Nurse has the playoffs’ lowest rating at minus-12.

There was speculation after Game 3 if he should be benched and what the Oilers should do about their Nurse “problem,” in the short- and long-term.

On Wednesday after the morning skate, Nurse gave a series of short answers to the media before he cut off his availability after a minute. His teammates, Connor McDavid among them, were asked about the criticism of Nurse’s game.

“He gives us everything he’s got and he always has for a long time,” McDavid said ahead of Game 4. “I expect him to have a great one tonight.”

For the most part, his performance was great. Nurse recovered from those disastrous opening minutes to assist on Ryan McLeod’s first-period goal that cut the lead to 2-1. He played 19:19 overall and delivered a game-high 12 hits, using his physicality to make a difference but never crossing the line, as he finished with zero penalty minutes after earning minor penalties in the previous two games.

“A lot to be said about Darnell,” Oilers forward Connor Brown said. “Everyone and their dog coming at him this morning. Two tough bounces to start the game and he settles in and plays probably his best game of the playoffs and leads us to a victory. So that’s character right there.”

Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl, who scored his 10th goal of the playoffs, said he wasn’t concerned with Nurse’s performance in the postseason.

“He plays extremely hard,” Draisaitl said. “Maybe his confidence hasn’t been where we’ve all seen it be, but those things happen. That’s normal. He’s a human being and tonight was a great step for him. I thought he was outstanding tonight.”

Game 5 is Friday night in Dallas.

While Nurse helped solidify the Edmonton defense, Dallas has a new concern on its backend: Stars defenseman Chris Tanev blocked an Evander Kane shot with his right foot with 7:38 left in the second period and did not return to the game with a lower-body injury.

Tanev has been a critical part of the Stars’ top four on defense, averaging 23:26 in ice time. He has 68 blocked shots to lead all players in the postseason. Coach Pete DeBoer said “fingers crossed” he is healthy for Game 5.

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