Edmonton Oilers' road to the Stanley Cup Finals was paved by golden special teams

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18 games into their most consequential playoff run in 18 years, the Edmonton Oilers are following a unique formula for success. Through three series, the Oilers have scored 40 goals in the primary game state, even strength. They’ve also allowed 40, for a net zero goal differential.

Doesn’t seem like a winning strategy, and hasn’t been in the past. Each of the 16 Cup champions during the analytics era (2007-present) has outscored their opposition by a minimum of 5 goals at 5v5 during the playoffs, typically by much more. The defending champion Vegas Golden Knights owned an impressive 66-33 edge at 5v5. After all, how can you win by merely breaking even in the primary game state?

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By crushing it on special teams, that’s how. It’s been a consistent formula of success for the Oilers in 2024. In each of those series, the locals have won the day, and indeed the fortnight, by owning special teams. Both special teams.

So far the Oil have scored a stunning 19 goals on the powerplay. Perhaps even more impressively, their penalty kill unit has allowed their combined opponents just 3 powerplay goals. Throw in a shorthanded goal, and Edmonton owns a 20-3 advantage in odd-man situations to this point. Twenty to three!

To summarize, here’s the distribution of goals scored during the Oilers’ playoffs to this advanced point.

Special teams series vs ALL rev

Nothing to choose at evens. A virtual wash in goalie pulled scenarios at either end. But utter domination by the Oilers when either team is down a man.

The same general pattern has held in each of Edmonton’s three series, all of which have featured the two sides within a single goal at evens. But variations of the same theme on special teams, with the length of the series reflecting the degree of Edmonton’s domination.

Round One: Oilers 4 Kings 1

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Special teams series vs LAK

The Oilers scored 9 goals on 20 powerplay opportunities, while killing off all 12 opportunities that Los Angeles had. That accounted for Edmonton’s entire goal differential of +9 in what was to be a short series.

Indeed, in 3 of the games those red hot specialty units were responsible for the margin of victory.

In a sport where either team can have between 3 and 6 skaters, there are a lot of different manpower situations; 15 different ones from the viewpoint of an individual team, excluding entirely the Bizarroworld 6 skaters on 6. In the game by game results below, we’ve further streamlined them into three main categories:

  • Even strength: Mainly 5v5 with a dollop of 4v4 and at least the possibility of 3v3 which in reality only ever happens during regular season overtime aka “gimmick time”.
  • Special teams: Powerplay or penalty kill, where both goalies are in net with a mismatched number of skaters.
  • Goalie out: end of game goalie pulls, counting all goals in either net. Such goals are generally considered “even strength” by the league, but the absence of one goalie creates important mismatches.

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Here’s the goal distribution for each individual games, combining PP and PK results into a single net special teams total, and similarly combining results with either team’s goalie on the bench.

Special teams vs LAK

The Oilers outright won the special teams battle in all 5 games; in 3 of them (highlighted), their advantage provided the full margin of victory. Twice, the squad produced 3 powerplay goals and ran away with the game. In two others, a single tally with the man advantage proved the difference in a nailbiter.

Highlight was likely Game 4, a goaltenders’ duel which featured just a single powerplay for each team. The Oilers made theirs count when Evan Bouchard lashed home Leon Draisaitl‘s one-touch pass on yet another variation by PP coach Glen Gulutzan’s ever-inventive first unit. The Kings couldn’t so much as muster a shot on their own opportunity against PK coach Mark Stuart’s stalwart group. And that was all she wrote on a night neither team scored in 57 minutes of even-strength play, this despite the Kings outshooting the Oilers 33-12 in that game state.

In Game 5, Draisaitl’s powerplay goal near the midway point erased a 2-1 deficit. The Oilers would score twice more that period, each time within seconds of the expiry of a Kings penalty, with Edmonton’s full first unit still on the ice. In the end, just the single official PPG, again the margin of victory as the Oilers closed out the Kings in a squeaker.

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It was the first series in the history of the Oilers in which the club never allowed a single powerplay goal. But not the last! Read on.

Round Two: Oilers 4 Canucks 3

Special teams series vs VAN

Vancouver was a very tough out, in part because their powerplay unit was able to inflict some damage and in part because their penalty kill was able to record a couple of clean games. Two things the Kings didn’t accomplish in Round One.

The series went back and forth in a succession of very tight games, the one exception being Edmonton’s 5-1 home win in a do-or-die Game 6 in which they uncharacteristically scored all of their goals at even strength.

Special teams vs VAN

Come Game 7, however, and the powerplay that had been silent for a couple of games delivered in the crunch. The goal in question was scored by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins late in the second period to stretch the Oilers lead to 3-0. An insurance goal that turned into the game winner when Vancouver clawed back to 3-2 in the late going. The series winner, in fact.

For its part, after allowing a pair of goals in Game 3 the penalty kill tightened up and didn’t allow another goal the rest of the series. Among their successes, a high-sticking double minor in Game 4; overlapping penalties in Game 6 that included nearly a full minute of 3v5 and a further minute of 4v5 to either side; another double minor in Game 7. The Oilers won each of those games.

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Round Three: Oilers 4 Stars 2

Special teams series vs DAL

In the Conference Finals, the Oilers actually lost the even-strength battle by a goal, but once again excellence on both special teams won the day. For the second time, the penalty kill went an entire series without allowing a single goal. That unit was the star of the show in the first 2 wins, before the PP delivered the goods in the last 2.

Special teams vs DAL

No special teams goals at all in Game 1, but in a game where Dallas had 10 minutes on the PP to just 2 for the Oilers that has to be considered a win. The PK unit had to deal with yet another extended kill, this one an extreme emergency when Connor McDavid took a 4-minute penalty right off the opening faceoff of overtime. Zero margin for error, and 4 minutes is a long damn time. But somehow, the unit got the job done, and were later repaid in full by McDavid’s game winner.

After losing the next 2 games based on even strength play, the Oilers got a critical special teams goal in Game 4. This from a most unexpected source, when Mattias Janmark converted Connor Brown‘s pass to break open a 2-2 tie late in the second period. The shorthanded tally would stand up as the game-winner as the Oilers evened the series.

Then after scoring just a single goal in 7 games dating back to the Vancouver series, the powerplay came back to life in Games 5 and 6. In each contest, the first unit converted their first 2 opportunities of the game to open a 2-0 lead. And in each, Stu Skinner made the early lead stand up by allowing but 1 goal against on the night. The PK unit did its own part by killing off a combined 5 penalties.

A standout tally to these eyes was the winner in Game 5 at Dallas, when the Oilers found a winning startegy to counter the Stars’ attempt to disrupt McDavid’s patented one-man zone entry. With two Stars up ice anticipating that alternative, the Oilers surprised them with a perfect stretch pass from Bouchard behind his own net to Draisaitl at the far blueline, creating a fast-strike 3-on-2. Draisaitl delivered a perfect pass of his own to RNH, who wired a perfect shot off the post and in.

That’s a lot of “perfect” in one sequence, but watch it and tell me I’m wrong.

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In all, Edmonton powerplay goals have opened the scoring in 6 different games, and produced the game winner 5 times. The penalty kill unit chipped in another game winner. Which pretty much explains why the Oilers have won 6 more games than they’ve lost despite sawing off at even strength.

Looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Finals

Not surprisingly, Edmonton has the statistical advantage in special teams play. They are #1 among playoff teams in both gross and net conversion rates on each unit. Combined, the net rates sum to a mind-boggling 133.2%, which is off the charts for even a small-ish sample of 18 games.

The Florida Panthers boast pretty darn good special teams of their own. Their PK unit has allowed but 6 powerplay goals through 17 games, and their clearance rate of a tidy 88.2% ranks second best among playoff teams behind only the Oilers. Their powerplay converts at 23.3%, sixth best, though their 14 powerplay goals ranks second only to Edmonton’s 19. The Cats have, however, been burned for 3 shorthanded goals while scoring a couple of their own.

Overall, the Panthers are a net +7 on special teams, very solid though fully 10 behind the Oilers’ staggering +17. They’ve had 60 opportunities in their 17 games, the Oilers 51 in 18.

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When expressed as a rate, Edmonton has averaged a mind-boggling 15.4 goals per 60 minutes of powerplay time, the Panthers barely half of that at 8.2. On the PK, the Oilers have allowed a meagre 2.0 goals per 60, the Panthers 4.2. Advantage: EDM.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have been the more efficient team at even strength, posting a goal differential of 31 for, 24 against at 5v5. In all situations, both teams have a goal differential of exactly +16. None of the eliminated teams was better than +6.

Different processes, similar results, including a trio of series wins for each conference champion. The stage is set for a compelling final round.

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