Edmonton Oilers make all the right moves to shred Vancouver Canucks but now comes deadly Dallas Stars

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Championship teams have a ruthless efficiency to them, a machine-like process that dissects and dismantles the opposition. The Edmonton Oilers aren’t quite there yet. But they displayed some of that necessary coherence and organization in coming from behind to beat the Vancouver Canucks in the final two games of the Pacific Division finals.

Coach Kris Knoblauch and his team made all the right moves against Vancouver. But now the Edmonton Oilers face their biggest challenge, the NHL’s best regular season team, the Dallas Stars.

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Deadly Dallas is fresh off wins over the past two Stanley Cup champions, the Vegas Golden Knights and the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars have all the look of a powerhouse Stanley Cup winner. Dallas is the best defensive team left in the playoffs, allowing just 2.38 goals per game, compared to Florida, 2.45, New York, 2.6, and  Edmonton, 2.75.

Dallas accomplished this by being the master of the NHL’s new intense and disciplined defensive game. This style sees the best teams defend in their own zone with two different approaches. Top teams attack relentlessly and aggressively along the perimeter to kill off penalties, but at even strength they collapse into a Spartan-like phalanx in front of their own net, parking-the-bus with all five players tightly defending the slot so that star opposition attackers, like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, can’t penetrate and launch Grade A and even more dangerous 5-alarm shots in tight. Los Angeles failed to employ either strategy against Edmonton, while Vancouver was generally sound at the even strength phalanx but too often failed on the penalty kill. The Canucks were too passive on the penalty kill, especially at the start the series.

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As for the Oilers, they have been the masters of the NHL’s defensive game on the penalty kill in the playoffs and are greatly improved under Knoblauch’s watch at even strength. Goaltending has been an issue, but it’s one of the many problems that Knoblauch helped solved against Vancouver with a series of sharp tactical and line-up moves.

In the end, Edmonton had 102 Grade A shots to 75 for Vancouver, 14.6 per game for the Oilers to 10.7 per game for the Canucks, a dominance that made up for differences in goaltending.

What have been his Knoblauch’s main changes?

1. Promoting performing forwards and demoting struggling ones. When Edmonton opened up against Los Angeles, Corey Perry and Evander Kane were on the third line, Dylan Holloway was on the fouth line and Derek Ryan and Connor Brown were in the pressbox. The Oilers lined-up like this against the Kings in Game 1.

Henrique – McDavid – Hyman
RNH – Draisaitl – Foegele
Kane – McLeod – Perry
Holloway – Carrick – Janmark

By comparison Edmonton’s current forward lines are:

RNH – McDavid – Hyman
Kane – Draisaitl – Holloway
Foegele – McLeod – Ryan
Brown – Carrick – Janmark 

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Henrique did well but got injured. Foegele played poorly and was bumped down the roster, until Knoblauch finally found a home for him, recreating the Foegele, McLeod and Ryan checking line that had done so well last playoffs against Vegas.

Perry played poorly and was bumped out of the line-up. Kane played well and was promoted to play with Draisaitl, where Kane’s ferocity and shooting have been critical to the Oilers. Holloway has been the best surprise of the playoffs, suddenly skating, passing and defending like a Top 6 forward, earning a promotion to the Draisaitl line.

Brown and Ryan have come to life and been given key roles as checkers on the fourth and third lines respectively.

2. Finding the right roles for role players. For years Edmonton has been stymied because the team has failed to come up with a strong checking line that the coach is willing to use against top opposing lines. Having such a line means the McDavid and Draisaitl lines get a break from facing off against top opposing lines. Knoblauch has now found not one, but two such checking lines, first the Foegele, McLeod and Ryan trio, and also the Brown, Carrick and Janmark trio.

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The two grind lines were assembled for the final two games against the Vancouver Canucks. Vancouver went from getting 20 Grade A shots in Game 5, to just 17 Grade A shots in total in the final two games, nine in Game 6 and eight in Game 7. The two grind lines deserve much credit for that improvement.

3. Getting the right forwards on the ice to end games. For years the Edmonton Oilers have gone with power against power to end games, putting out star attackers like McDavid, Draisaitl, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins even when protecting a lead. But sometimes such attackers can get puck watching, over-aggressive and too hungry for empty net goals. Knoblauch has now taken to having players like Ryan, Brown and Janmark get more shifts in the final two minutes, a sharp and welcome change. The big guns are still out there, but they’re assisted by these defensive specialists. It helped the Oilers calm things down in the final four minutes of Game 7, after Vancouver had scored two quick goals. I suspect the Oilers might go with even more grinders late in games against Dallas. Such players are best suited to defend a lead.

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4. Doubling down on organized aggression on the penalty kill. Edmonton’s penalty kill was inconsistent during the regular season, but has been the best in  NHL in the playoffs, allowing just three goals on 35 attempts, a 91.4 per cent kill rate.

When things went wrong in the regular season it was often because the Oilers were disjointed, with one player aggressively attacking the puck but getting beat and not having support. It seemed to me that the Oilers might be better off with a more passive approach, but I could not have been more incorrect. Instead, they have successfully doubled down on aggression, but mixed it with better organization, individual players not just attacking hard on the perimeter but also being backed up by their teammates. Dallas used this style of penalty killing to thwart Edmonton’s power play in a late season game, making it clear the Oilers had the right idea, but they just needed to get better at it. They have now done so, their kill now a whirlwind of organized aggression.

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5. Finding a way to score on a parked bus. To beat a zone defence, you can fast break up ice and get off shots before the zone has a chance to set up, something the Oilers have always excelled at. But once it does set up, the attacking team must make smart and rapid passes, setting up outside shots, then crash the net. Edmonton scored all three of its goals in Game 7 in this manner, all three ignited by outside shots: Cody Ceci’s points shot going in through a moving Holloway screen; Evan Bouchard’s point shot tipped in by a screening Hyman; and Bouchard’s power play slapper rebounding off the boards to RNH, who slammed it in.

If and when the Oilers fail to score off the rush, they need to play this smart cycling and passing game, with goals coming off outside shots and hard plays at the net. They’ve often lacked the patience and will to attack in this manner, preferring to attack the slot with rushes and seam passes, but if all the defence will give up is outside shots, it makes sense to perfect scoring in this manner as well. Edmonton is working on it and, evidently, getting the hang of it.

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On the power play, the way to beat an aggressive perimeter press is with fast passing and hard, direct attacks right on goal. Edmonton’s still figuring this out but if Bouchard can deftly flip the puck past the defenders swarming him, getting it to Connor McDavid, few players are better equipped than McDavid to make a hard change on net, either passing or shooting for a Grade A shot.

6. One-two punch in goal. Edmonton lost against Vegas last season, in part, because the coaches either didn’t have another goalie they could trust or certainly felt that way, meaning they had to stick with Stuart Skinner even when he struggled. Against Vancouver, Knoblauch was able to trust in reliable Calvin Pickard when Skinner was off his game. Pickard delivered, but Knoblauch had the guts to go back to Skinner, his most reliable starter this regular season, in Games 6 and 7. It paid off, as Skinner came up with enough big saves in the final two games to help vanquish Vancouver.

More of the same will be needed from Skinner and Pickard against Dallas. Goaltending remains the biggest question mark on the team. But it’s less of a question than it was a week ago, with Knoblauch, Skinner and Pickard all deserving of credit. It might well take a one-two punch in net to beat Dallas, but Edmonton might just have that combination.

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7. Find a way to shelter and uplift Nurse and Ceci. Darnell Nurse is -10 on goals plus/minus, the lowest total in the NHL playoffs. Sometimes this stat lies, but not so much in this case. Nurse has indeed struggled. According to the Cult of Hockey’s video review, Nurse made just one play to help the Oilers score a goal at even strength in the playoffs but has made major mistakes on nine goals against.

That said, Nurse has been trending up, as has his previous partner Cody Ceci. Ceci was one of the heroes of Game 7, scoring a goal and playing stalwart defence. Knoblauch has found a way to shelter and uplift both players, mainly by breaking up their failing partnership. Ceci has done better playing with Brett Kulak, whose great skating and solid reads have made him an exceptional playoff performer for the third year in a row.

Nurse has found his game again paired with Vincent Desharnais, the two playing a simple, forceful style, where they’re at their best when they protect the defensive slot religiously and move the puck fast.

Nurse is now rediscovering what made him a strong NHLer. He’s taking the man and moving the puck, rinse, repeat. The improvement is seen in his numbers, LA series vs Van series.

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Against Los Angeles in five games at even strength, he made major contributions to just two Grade A shots at even strength and major mistakes on 12 against. In seven games against Vancouver, he improved to eight major contributions to Grade A shots with just 12 major mistakes. That’s more like it, and a credit to both him and his coach.

Of course, the Dallas series will present many new challenges. But Edmonton and its rookie coach are showing they can find solutions. They’re starting to looking like a ruthless and efficient team. Dallas has that same quality. so the clock ticks fast on Edmonton’s self-improvement course.

At the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: Player grades for Game 7

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