5 THINGS: Who holds the edge as Edmonton Oilers take on Dallas Stars in Western Conference final?

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Bring on the Dallas Stars.

The Edmonton Oilers earned a trip to the Western Conference final for the second time in three years (but just the third time since 2006), following a 4-3 series win over the Vancouver Canucks in a second-round showdown between the last two Canadian clubs standing in the playoffs.

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It took coming back from 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 series leads by the Canucks, who finished ahead of Edmonton in first place in the Pacific Division, putting the nail in the proverbial coffin with back-to-back wins, including a 3-2 result Monday in Vancouver.

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In doing so, the Oilers became the only team left of the final four who didn’t finish atop their respective division, with the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers and the Florida Panthers, winners of the Atlantic Division, squaring off in the Eastern Conference.

Waiting for the Oilers is a Stars squad that finished first in the Central Division and the Western Conference with 113 points (52-21-9) before downing the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 and the Colorado Avalanche 4-2.

Here are five factors to consider heading into the Western Conference final and which team might hold the advantage:

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1. STARTING SKINNER

If there is one thing we know about the Oilers starting goalie, it’s that Stuart Skinner won’t be starting every game in the best-of-7 series. Not if they want to give themselves a fighting chance, anyway.

As a rookie last year, his all-star season stalled out in the playoffs, where he started every game but ended up getting pulled in four of them on the way to a second-round ousting.

This time around, Skinner made it through five first-round starts before being sat for Games 3 and 4 against the Canucks. He returned to earn back-to-back wins while facing back-to-back elimination games to turn the tide in what had been a back-and-forth series.

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Perhaps more importantly, the team in front of him responded as well, both on offence and defence.

So, while he gets two days to rest before starting Game 1 in Dallas on Thursday, expect to see the very capable backup, Calvin Pickard, get handed the reins at some point.

On the other side, Jake Oettinger has started all 13 games for the Stars with no signs of slowing down.

Advantage: Dallas

2. SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams made all the difference in a one-goal game Monday. The Oilers went 1-for-2 on the power play while holding the Canucks to 0-for-3.

But it wasn’t just Game 7. The Oilers tipped the scales in their favour by going 6-for-21 on the man advantage, while limiting Vancouver to 3-for-22. The Canucks went without a power-play goal in the final four games of the series despite having 13 opportunities.

In games where a team won the special-teams battle, Edmonton came out ahead 2-1, including Game 7.

In the regular season, Edmonton’s power play finished fourth overall (26.3%), two places ahead of Dallas (24.2%). In the playoffs, the Oilers boast the NHL’s top power play (37.5%), while the Stars are fourth overall (29%).

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On the penalty kill, Edmonton finished 15th (79.46%) in the regular season, compared to eighth-place Dallas (82%). But here in the playoffs, Edmonton also leads the way in penalty killing (91.4%), while the Stars are 11th (69.2%).

Advantage: Edmonton

3. TOP STARS

When it comes to offensive talent, both rosters hold a significant amount, but are constructed differently.

It’s difficult, of course, to overlook the Oilers coming into this series with the top four points leaders in the playoffs.

Leon Draisaitl leads the way at a two-points-per-game clip with 24 (eight goals, 16 assists) in 12 games, followed by Connor McDavid (two goals, 19 assists), Evan Bouchard (five goals, 15 assists) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (four goals, 12 assists) in fourth place. Zach Hyman also leads the league with 11 goals in 12 playoff games.

Dallas will counter by committee, with the numbers showing they come out ahead in roster depth. And, in a long drawn-out series, that could mean everything.

While they don’t have a player among the top 10 points leaders, Miro Heiskanen comes in at No. 11 at a point per game, with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 13 playoff games.

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Advantage: Draw

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4. COACHING CHOPS

Kris Knoblauch deserves all the credit in the world. Yes, he guided a team led by two of the best players in the world to an impressive 46-18-5 (.703) record as a rookie head coach.

But he first had to help bring them back from the brink of despair following a 3-9-1 start under the former regime to get them back on the playoff track everyone expected of them coming into the season.

Here in the playoffs, he has shown he isn’t afraid to make tough decisions and try to do something about it when things aren’t going as planned.

On the other side, Stars veteran bench boss Peter DeBoer is coaching in the conference final round for the fifth time in six years.

Advantage: Dallas

5. FAN FACTOR

The Stars have home-ice advantage heading into the series. And it’s a good thing for them, too.

Unless we’re talking football, this one is no contest.

Advantage: Edmonton

E-mail: [email protected]

On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge

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