Plot twists? Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars coaches have major decisions going into Game 2

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Edmonton Oilers coach Kris Knoblauch and Dallas Stars coach Pete DeBoer have major decisions to make heading into Game 2, both centring around centres, Edmonton’s Adam Henrique and Dallas’ Roope Hintz.

Henrique got what looked to be an ankle/knee/foot injury in the last minutes of Game 5 against Los Angeles. He played one game early in the Vancouver series but failed to keep up with the flow of play. He’s been on rehabbing on the sidelines since. Knoblauch now says Henrique is 98 per cent ready to play, but will be 100 per cent with a few more days rest.

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“A player like Adam would be a huge boost to our team and that’s something we have to decide,” Knoblauch told the media today.

Hintz had missed three games since injury his hand/wrist against Colorado. DeBoer told reporters that Hintz was skating and it’s possible he will play in Game 2.

The decision to return injured players before they’re fully ready is fraught. For example, in the one game (Game 2 on May 10 more than two weeks ago) Henrique played against Vancouver, he was slow to get to a cross-seam pass on an Edmonton penalty kill, which freed up Elias Pettersson to take the pass and score.

If Henrique been been healthy, or if a replacement player in his spot on the PK had been healthy, would he have cut out that pass? Possibly. Likely.

Hintz is the Number One centre on the Stars, leading the centres for time-on-ice during the regular season at 17:14 per game. He’s 6-feet, 3-inches, 212-pounds, a fast, big, skilled bull of forward, the Dallas version of Leon Draisaitl. Dallas will be keen to have him back, but they can’t discount him losing some key battles because he’s still banged up. Another example of this is Chris Tanev playing hurt for the Calgary Flames in their 2022 playoff loss to the Oilers. He got beat on several goals against that a healthy Tanev would have thwarted.

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As for Knoblauch, this current version of the Oilers has won three straight games, all with outstanding team-wide efforts. For the first time this year, the Oilers have got four lines that are playing solid two-way hockey. This kind of depth is critical against Dallas, which has solid players in all 12 forward spots. The Oilers can’t afford to have even one passenger — to use Rick Tocchet’s favourite word — if they’re going to beat Dallas.

Not one.

You might think having an under-performing bottom line forward is no big deal, but that bottom line forward will take shifts against Dallas forwards who can take advantage of any moment and pot a big goal. Given how close the games are, each one is as likely to be lost by iffy plays by the bottom-end players as it is to be won by superstars making brilliant ones. Hockey is a weak link game. The weakest list can and will drag down the entire squad.

It’s also the case that the penalty kill has been a game-winner for Edmonton, which means it’s likely unwise to switch out any of its key components at forward: Derek Ryan, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Connor Brown, Mattias Janmark, Warren Foegele or Ryan McLeod.

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All of those players have had their struggles at even strength, though RNH and Brown are trending up fast, and Ryan, Janmark, Foegele and McLeod, give or take the odd brutal turnover, are getting the job done. That would leave Henrique replacing fourth line centre Sam Carrick as the best option, but Carrick was one of the few Oilers centres who had any success on the faceoff dot in Game 1 against Dallas.

Leon Draisaitl won just eight out of 29 face-offs, Connor McDavid six of 16, but Ryan was six out of eight and Carrick seven out of 11. When the team needs a big face-off win, it would be useful to have Carrick or Ryan out there, no?

At the same time, Henrique is a smart, effective forward who can play the PK and help the Oilers score at even strength. He’s going to get in soon and he’ll help the Oilers win when he does.

If Henrique moved on to the third line with McLeod and Foegele, with Ryan taking over for Carrick on the fourth line, and Carrick sitting out, that might well work. But I suspect that until the Oilers lose, Knoblauch will stick with his winning line-up. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

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Oilers Grade A 13 games

As for the Stars, whether or not Hintz plays, they will be a different team for Game 2. They came into the series on the high of eliminating the past two Stanley Cup champions, with 80 per cent of NHL analysts predicting they would beat the Oilers. They’ve now been defeated on home ice.

This is something they’re used to, having now lost seven straight first games in playoff series, but it puts them in a tough spot. They have some digging to do, but they’re aware of this, as DeBoer told the media. “At the end of the day, and rewatching it (Game 1), I think one team game into the game with a Game 7 days mindset, them, and we came in with a 5-day off mindset. It’s just thin margins and we’ve got to get that fixed.”

This Dallas team is going to be a bear in Game 2. And some days, the bear will eat you. How do the Oilers avoid that? How do they press their advantage? How do they avoid the mental errors that cause wide-open slot shots against them?

The Oilers have a solid line-up capable of doing that, even as Dallas got 17 Grade A shots, the same total as Vancouver got in its final two games against the Oilers, nine in Game 6, just eight in Game 7.

Dallas has already demonstrated it can attack well enough to beat the Oilers. Game 2 will be a daunting task for Knoblauch and his squad.

At the Cult of Hockey

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