Matheson: Oilers penalty killing prowess on display during NHL playoff run

The shorthanded goal gave them their first lead and reinforced how damaging their PK has been, suffocatingly good

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While the Edmonton Oilers powerplay has been the team’s muscle, making teams pay dearly until last half-dozen games, their penalty-kill has truly become the team’s heartbeat through all three playoff rounds.

Not only have they now killed off 23 straight over the last eight games, and 41 of 44 against Los Angeles, Vancouver and Dallas (93.2 percent) but Connor Brown and Mattias Janmark pumped life into a sold-out Rogers Place in Game 4 with their shorthanded 2-on-1 goal, with linemate Derek Ryan cheering wildly from the penalty box after his holding call on Matt Duchene.

This was the play of the game, with the Oilers season squarely on the line, as they went on to win 5-2 to tie the series at two. The shorthanded goal gave them their first lead and reinforced how damaging their PK has been, suffocatingly good. On Wednesday, they held Dallas to one shot on two PP tries and the Oilers scored.

Darnell Nurse, who had a statement game with 12 hits, bouncing back from two unfortunate minuses on early Dallas goals where he was just at the scene of the crime, not at fault on either, blocked one of his four game shots. And away went the much-maligned regular-season Brown, who has had a strong playoff, with Janmark.

They made it look like Gretzky to Kurri or McDavid to Draisaitl the way they finished it off as D-man Thomas Harley couldn’t block the Brown-to-Janmark feed. He hammered it past Jake Oettinger for the team’s first shortie of the playoffs.

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Brown, who scored in the 3-1 loss in Game 2 in Dallas and drew tripping call on Radek Faksa for the only Oiler powerplay Wednesday, thought his set-up was anything but a lay-up for Janmark. The puck somersaulted through the air but it found Janmark, who had to pretzel his body, a tad, before he made like this season’s Zach Hyman with the put back.

“I saw the defender shading over to me and I fed him a bit of a shitburger (pass) there. But he adjusted and he made a great play,” said Brown.

Janmark laughed at the crappy pass reference by his linemate.

“Huh? I, thought it was a pretty good pass. I had to turn my front foot and adjust to it…but I, uh wouldn’t call it a shitburger. I’ll take those passes any day,” said Janmark.

“We played to our structure on the kill, got a big block from Nurse and Brown was able to go the other way. We’re both pretty good skaters and if we do get an opportunity for an odd-man rush we can take advantage,” said Janmark, the quietest, most consistent two-way role player on the team.

“That was kind of a kick in the butt. Their PK puts a lot of pressure on you and we’ll have to find a way to get a little creative there,” said Stars’ captain Jamie Benn.

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No argument from coach Kris Knoblauch.

“You think about key moments in games and that was it, the game-winning goal,” said Knoblauch. “And we took a penalty (Hyman trip by the boards) in the third…if they score there to get it to 4-3, they’ve got plenty of time on the clock. But we come up big with another kill there. No matter who’s in or out, (Warren Foegele and Vinny Desharnais were out in Game 4), everybody’s stepping up. They’re taking a lot of pride in that job.”

In Knoblauch’s mind, in the playoffs, it’s what you leave on the table, not so much what you make. “It’s good to have a good power play but keeping the puck out of the net is more important,” said Knoblauch.

As a PP expert, Draisaitl knows a thing or two about penalty-kills and the Oilers PK throughout the playoffs is clearly A-plus, or eh, plus, as the only Canadian team left.

“It seems like they’re controlling the pace of the (other team’s) power play sometimes and that’s really, really hard to do with kills,” said Draisaitl. “They’re so in sync with their routes and how detailed they are in being in lanes.”

Brown, Janmark, Ryan, Ryan McLeod, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Adam Henrique, taking Foegele’s place in Game 4, were the six forwards used. Nurse and Cody Ceci were on the PK on the Brown-Janmark jail break.

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Brown went 55 games without scoring in regular-season, as we all know, finally getting one off his skate against Darcy Kuemper, prompting him to say “I might get into a glass of wine or two.” A sip of success led to much stronger play over the last two months. And he’s carried it over into the last two rounds, often playing with Janmark and Ryan as a fourth-line, after being odd-man out for Dylan Holloway in the LA series.

“I think I’ve been building some momentum since the all-star break. It wasn’t easy coming off an injury (torn ACL last season in Washington) and things snowballed. It was a hard reset and I think I’ve carried that (momentum) for months now,” he said.

Edmonton Oilers' Darnell Nurse
The Edmonton Oilers’ Darnell Nurse (25) during second period NHL playoff action against the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place, in Edmonton Wednesday May 29, 2024. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

Nurse plays his ‘best game of the series’

While Brown and Janmark had the signature play of the night, Nurse’s overall play can’t be overlooked. He had to elevate his game and as the game wore on his play was hard, direct and forceful. While he’s taken major grief for being on for 18 goals against and only six for through the playoffs — a good number not on him but happenstance — he had his game face on Wednesday.

“His best game of the series, and maybe even the playoffs,” said Knoblauch. “He had an unfortunate start where he had to defend a 2-on-1 (Wyatt Johnston snipe), then we lose a face-off and shot goes in off him (Esa Lindell) on the second. Many players would have folded then. But he responded and was great.”

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Draisaitl seconded that emotion. He felt Nurse set the tone.

“That’s what he does a lot of nights. A lot of things he does go unnoticed but he plays extremely hard. Maybe his confidence wasn’t where we’ve all seen it be but those things happen. He’s a human being. Tonight was a great step,” said Draisaitl, who had the 4-2 goal and an assist on Mattias Ekholm’s empty-netter.

On the bench

  • The Oilers got through the game unscathed but Dallas lost their second-best D man Chris Tanev in the second period when he took an Evander Kane shot off his right foot. Will he play in Game 5? “Fingers crossed,” said Dallas coach Pete DeBoer.
  • His blueline is thin with regular third-pairing F Jani Haakanpaa skating but still not playing two and a half months after suffering a lower-body injury and and local product/farm call-up Alex Petrovic paired  with 39-year-old Ryan Suter.
  • Lost in the Oiler win was Henrique’s exemplary work in the face-off circle. He was 12-4 in 14 minutes, centering the third line.

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