Edmonton Oilers

How can the Edmonton Oilers bounce back from a 2–1 series deficit?

The frustration is palpable, from the skyward looks of Edmonton Oilers shooters, to the uneasiness lurking in minds across Oil Country, to the loosened tie and undone collar of Coach Jay Woodcroft post game. The hope should be that we follow the coach’s lead in cooling down and regaining, if not maintaining composure.

The Oilers find themselves down two games to one in the best of seven series against the Los Angeles Kings. The circumstances surrounding this latest defeat are contentious, from a probable missed high stick on the winning goal to a dangerous knee on knee call which was definitely missed, not to mention the Kings’ success at keeping the puck out of their net.

Have the Kings’ figured out the Oilers?

Kings’ Captain Anze Kopitar was at ease in his post game scrum, carrying a poise about him built through years of experience in these moments on and off the ice. A true professional he made sure to acknowledge the raucous L.A. crowd. Kopitar and fellow defensive standout from the centre ice position, Philip Danault, have effectively enacted the Kings’ plan to handle the Oilers high powered offence.

In his post game presser, equally soothed by the victory, Kings’ Coach Todd McLellan laid out a succinct synopsis of his team’s recipe for success. When asked about his team’s power play success, after another overtime winner scored with the man advantage, McLellan replied that the Kings like their chances 5v5 if they can play Edmonton’s all time league best power play to a draw. Through the first three games of the series the Oilers are 4/8 on the power play, with the Kings equaling their output going 4/15. No doubt this discrepancy does little to quell rage in Oil Country.

These have been fine margins that the Kings have had to navigate to earn their two victories. Although the recipe has been successful it can be unmade with mistakes by the Kings or adjustments by the Oilers. As frustrating as it has been there is a path to a reversal of these results for the Oilers.

Oilers need to improve their penalty kill

The Oilers cannot control the refs, and their decisions on what is and is not a penalty will remain intangible. It must be acknowledged that with the likes of Drew Doughty, Alex Edler, and Vladislav Gavrikov on the ice at all times, that the Kings are never without a defender well decorated in the art of playoff legal interference. Kopitar, Danault, even Victor Arvidsson, the Kings are armed with a slew of savvy competitors, veterans who have the patience to employ the rope-a-dope style the Kings have been using.

From a broader standpoint the refs will never save you in the playoffs, and whistles should be guidelines. Even if Connor McDavid was right in seeing the high stick in overtime, it can’t be a reason to talent defensive posture. This isn’t to slight McDavid, but more so to observe the reality of the NHL playoffs.

That being said, the Kings’ power play is a force of its own, finishing fourth in efficiency this season. Their versatility has been key, rotating players in and out of spots, and notably flipping their power play vertically, distributing from the goal line on both OT winners. The Oilers have killed off many of the penalties against them, but with such a tight series this may not be enough. While some might point out individual players on the OT goals against the truth is that both goals have seen a more complete breakdown.

While a diamond shape is strong at defending the Kings usual look distributing from the blueline a box of sorts, with both Oiler defencemen low, might be needed to defend the goal line look more effectively. The goal from the goal line is usually to find a body in front, meaning one way or another the coverage at the net front is paramount. The extra defender down low could help accomplish this while pressuring the puck, but the Oilers forwards will likely need to cover the middle as well. 

In all the Oilers might be better served to by focusing on their discipline rather than fretting their goal scoring the rest of the series. As series prolong the number of power plays is usually lessened, which means that the Kings average of five power plays per game this series should decrease. The Oilers, averaging just under 2.7 power plays per game, might be less subject to change.

Even strength-ed? 

The Kings have been as advertised, one of the league’s best defensive teams, but their performance here is buoyed by the goaltending of Jonas Korpisalo. Especially at 5v5, it has been difficult for the Oilers to score goals, in large part thanks to the stellar play of Korpisalo.

The Oilers appear unfazed here, as they should. Post game, both McDavid and coach Woodcroft noted that they liked the Oilers play at 5v5, and that their chances were there. A goal from Zach Hyman or Evander Kane would certainly be appreciated, or rather, might make the fact that the Oilers have carried play more appreciable.

As long as the Kings keep up their relentless defensive performance it will help obscure this fact. The Oilers should be careful not to press for offence too hard, and instead should continue to trust the process. It may seem counterintuitive but playing a clean defensive game, in tandem with a heightened level of overall discipline, will be the answer to untangling the riddle of the defensive Kings. 

Lapses from the Oilers

Adrian Kempe’s tying goal in Game 3, a power play maker that evened the score at two in the second, came off of a tricky set play, a bounce pass off the Oilers end boards. Though unexpected, Kempe flew by the Oilers defence who did not account for Doughty’s boldness in firing it off the end wall. The Kings managed a number of chances off of the Oilers’ carelessness, including a long two-on-none that Stuart Skinner managed to thwart. These lapses can’t be continued.

Between the discipline, the power plays, and the momentary defensive lapses, the Oilers have allowed the embers of the Kings defence and goaltending to catch fire. This momentum can fester in a team’s mind, and cheating for offence is the worst way out. If the Oilers are able to undo their ties, cool down, and maintain their composure they will stand a chance at escaping the Kings grasp. 

Focus in the moment

As the questions wind down in Woodcroft’s post Game 3 press conference, so too does his broil. Pulling his punches, careful with his words, withholding through stuttered speech and tugged collar, Woodcroft regains himself. Eagerly correcting reporters who seem to be barking up the wrong tree. When the Oilers being outhit is brought into question Woodcroft sites the game itself, as well as the hit totals, dispelling the notion, something Kings Coach McLellan dismissed in his post game comments as well.

When the outstanding play of Korpisalo was mentioned Woodcroft was sure to answer by stating that both goalies played very well and made outstanding saves. While Skinner is certainly deserving of this assessment, this shows us that Woodcroft is keeping a positive focus on his team and their play.

This focus extends beyond, as when questioned about the similarities between this series and last year’s series, or between the three games played so far this series are brought up, Woodcroft refuses to acknowledge either much. His focus remains undeterred, fixated on his team and their execution, the moment at hand.

With team leaders McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins doing post game interviews, it’s clear that the players are in tow. All three made sure to take accountability for their mistakes in the game, their small part of the loss, but maintained an objective and positive mindset. Though some frustrations with calls or the Kings play were evident, the Oilers maintained faith in themselves and their style of play, as they should.

A recipe of their own

The Kings deserve a lot of credit for their defensive abilities, and in truth check off a lot of boxes in being a legitimate Cup contender. The Kings are among a short list of teams with this level of defensive proficiency, joined only by the Boston Bruins, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, and perhaps the Carolina Hurricanes. Regardless of how well the Oilers play offensively, they will have a tough time running up the score on the Kings.

The key to beating the Kings, the test that is before the Oilers, is instead one of internal fortitude, of discipline of play and temperament. 

Though they are trailing in the series once again, the good news is that the Oilers seem to be aware of this. The frustration of the series so far can still be channelled in a productive way, through focus on the moment at hand. There will be opportunities to unleash aggression, it must be more tactful than the Oilers have been. There will be opportunities to score or press for offence, but it cannot come at the expense of this focus. 

This was part of the Oilers success last season, as the team barely squeaked out a seven-game series win against the Kings, the team’s focus in the present moment was undeniable. The intensity followed from post whistle skirmishes, no doubt, but the Oilers found a way to remain steadfast in their tactical precision. This is the centre that the Oilers will need to find once again to prevail over the Kings, a mindset we are seeing manifest itself already. The first step to achieving is believing, let us hope the Oilers believe in the right things, together.

Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire

Gregory Babinski

twitter: @axiomsofice

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