Oilers present new instructional video: How Not To Pull Your Goalie

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Communication breakdown
it’s always the same

I’m having a nervous breakdown
drive me insane
— Led Zeppelin, “Communication Breakdown”

Five days into the Conference Finals, hockey fans have been treated to a pair of intense playoff series involving the four best teams in the National Hockey League. Of the five games to this point, three have been decided in overtime, the other two by scores of 3-0 and 3-1 including an empty net goal in each case. Of the 340 minutes of hockey played, the score has been within a single goal for 325 of them. That’s over 95%.

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Here in the West, the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars have been within a goal for all but 4 of the 140 minutes played to this point, over 97%. As colleague Kurt Leavins put it in his Sunday column 9 Things, “the margins in this series so far are razor thin”.  To that I would add, the margin for error is essentially nothing at all.

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Alas, the Oilers made a massive sequence of blunders towards the end of Saturday night’s game at Dallas that sealed their fate in what was to become a 3-1 loss. To be sure, they were already behind the 8-ball, having yielded the go-ahead goal in the early minutes of the third period when winger Jamie Langenbrunner got a piece of Richard Matvichuk’s outside wrister and tipped it past Oilers netminder Tommy Salo… no wait, it was Mason Marchment, Ryan Suter and Stuart Skinner, but in the exact manner that the Stars used to take down the Oilers back in the day. Timely scoring followed by fierce checking and the occasional big stop when most needed. I recognize the formula all too well.

Fair to say that the modern Oilers had been skating uphill for awhile as the clock wound down towards the 3:00 mark. They had, however, shown some signs of life down the stretch, with Mattias Ekholm getting the best chance from the slot off a Leon Draisaitl feed, and both Ekholm and partner Evan Bouchard testing Jake Oettinger from distance.

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With 2:53 to play and a faceoff in Dallas territory, Edmonton’s big guns took a rest following a 72-second shift. A makeshift line of Evander Kane, Dylan Holloway and Warren Foegele took to the ice along with the experienced defence pair of Darneel Nurse and Cody Ceci. Obviously their objective was to score, but just as plainly they were temporary placeholders for the top guys to regain their wind for the inevitable goalie pull in the last two minutes.

But that’s when things went sideways. Kane won the draw to Holloway, but his shot was blocked. The Stars broke out with the puck which spent the next 30 or so seconds under their control and/or in Edmonton’s end of the ice, the backchecking Oilers expending plenty of energy trying to regain possession. Finally with under 2:20 to play the Oil recovered the puck and broke out of their end.

Frame by frame

Let’s follow along by screen grab, using the TNT feed for reasons which will become clear:

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1. Nurse and Holloway, both out of frame to the left, have won the puck back and advanced it to Kane busting up the left wing boards. Behind him, Ceci (white circle) is perfectly positioned to execute a responsible line change, in which Bouchard re-enters the game. In the middle of the ice, Foegele supports Kane on the rush.

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2. Kane advances through the neutral zone, the Dallas defence pair of (top to bottom) Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell await in excellent position, while Wyatt Johnson covers Foegele. Nurse (teal circle) supports the rush from the rear.


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3. Kane skates right into the trap and tries to step around Heiskanen. A pass to Foegele is impossible at this point. Behind Kane, both Nurse and Holloway (blue circle) continue to follow the play. Meanwhile Skinner (orange circle) breaks for the player’s bench, nicely presented by TNT’s nifty picture-in-picture feature. (Not a bad idea, Sportsnet!)

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4. Heiskanen eliminates Kane along the boards at the hash marks. Johnston collects the puck while half a zone away, Nurse and Holloway both pull up for a belated line change. Skinner continues his sprint to the bench.

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5. With Johnston in control, Nurse, Holloway and Skinner are all headed to the bench. There are only three Edmonton skaters in the play at this point, none of them in position to do much about it.

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6. Johnston pulls up behind the icing line and surveys the wide open spaces in front of him. For some reason Foegele has decided to go around the net in pursuit rather than taking the more direct route to the puck carrier. Skinner meanwhile has reached the bench where he is replaced by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

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7. Johnston zips a pass right through the middle of his own zone to Jamie Benn, who has come back in support. Both Kane and Foegele are now trapped behind the play.

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8. With literally nobody around him. Benn has received Johnston’s pass and smartly sends the puck towards Lindell, out of frame along the boards on the penalty box side. That’s a long way from the Oilers line change, where Connor McDavid is replacing Holloway (both in blue circle). Nurse is still headed towards the gate. Bouchard (white circle because he replaced Ceci) stands alone on the right side of the ice.

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9. The camera pans to Lindell, all alone with the puck without an Oiler anywhere near him and nobody at all in the entire left half of the frame. Kane has no chance from the far faceoff circle, while behind him, Foegele heads toward the bench for his own change. In theory, he’ll be replaced by Draisaitl when he gets to the bench, but in reality he never gets there.

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10. Seeing a clear path towards Edmonton’s empty net, Lindell decides to risk icing the puck to take a shot at it. Nugent-Hopkins (orange circle because he replaced Skinner) can’t quite get all the way across the ice to him. McDavid (blue circle) has no chance.

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11. Picture quality is lousy because the camera is panning rapidly, but the position of the players is all we need to know. None of the four has been on the ice for as many as a dozen seconds at this point.  Lindell’s shot eludes three of them to the penalty box side because none of the three had time to make the challenge. The last arrival, Ekholm (teal circle because he replaced Nurse) has no chance either. Only Bouchard, the first to switch on, is in position to do anything about it, and for whatever reason he is in normal defence mode near the right wing boards rather than in Lindell’s shooting lane. Note that the puck is a couple of feet off the ice at this point so not quite in the position it appears to be.

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12. …with the inevitable result. Dallas 3 Edmonton 1, and turn out the lights.


To review, here is the entire inglorious sequence in video form, the Sportsnet feed in this instance.

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The likelihood of Edmonton scoring with the goalie pulled wasn’t great, but decidedly non-zero. First priority was to execute the change of personnel to get the right people on the ice. But the actual changes occurred in this order:

  1. Bouchard replaces Ceci at 2:15 (white)
  2. RNH replaces Skinner at 2:11 (orange)
  3. McDavid replaces Holloway at 2:08 (blue)
  4. Ekholm replaces Nurse at 2:07 (teal)
  5. oh yeah, Lindell scores at 2:03 (red light district)

Now I’m no expert, but it seems to me the better idea would be to pull the goalie after the right players are already on the ice, not before. The extra seconds to be gained by pulling the netminder on the rush were precious few compared to the 2 minutes that were essentially lost when the empty cage was breached.

Clearly, a communication breakdown. Whether called to the bench or simply jumping the gun, Skinner’s evacuation of the cage was premature. Nurse and Holloway’s joint decision to support the rush all the way into the o-zone, then loop back to the bench, was disastrous. Foegele’s odd route around the net was not helpful. Only Bouchard’s change was executed well, and even in that case I was left wondering whether Bouch knew the net behind him was unguarded. The whole team appeared to be out of sync with the plan, if there even was one. It was a mess.

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Ultimately, responsibility falls on the man behind the bench. In his scant months on the job, Kris Knoblauch has proven to be a smart coach, a good communicator, with a track record of learning from his mistakes. This observer has every confidence he’ll learn from this one, and that his team will be better prepared for the next on-the-fly goalie pull.

Play La Bamba, baby

Lots of hurt feelings in Oil Country on Saturday night when the Stars music director, DJ Shippy, chose to play La Bamba after the Dallas win. Hit a little close to home for those many of us in Oil Country who associate the song with our memory of beloved community members Joey Moss and Ben Stelter. Not to mention with wins by the Oilers, not their opponents.

Feedback was swift and unhappy. Turned out Shippy had chosen the tune deliberately as a bit of fun, but was unaware of its deeper meaning in this part of the world. Once he found out, he handled it like an absolute champ.

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Moreover, he backed up his apology by making a donation to the Ben Stelter Fund.

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Shippy’s classy handling of the situation led to a spillover effect, with fans of both sides donating to the Ben Stelter Fund, the Dallas Stars Foundation, or in some cases, both.

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The whole situation has done wonders to restore (some of) my faith in humanity after it was sorely tested in earlier rounds of the playoffs. Stick taps all around.

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