The Edmonton Oilers fell 2-1 to the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night. The Canucks held the edge in play and in scoring chances, particularly at even-strength. The Oilers kept the score close but could generate almost nothing offensively when the top line of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle were off the ice.
After the game, head coach Dallas Eakins faced some rather pointed questions about the Oilers’ physical play. And he replied with some equally pointed answers.
The Press Conference
The video above has post-game clips from both coaches and some players, with Eakins coming on at around the 13:00 mark. He took a pretty inocuous question about physical play early and offered his take on when it made sense for his team to play the body and how he’d viewed them in that department against Vancouver:
Listen, you want to be physical as much as you can. But we definitely don’t want to run out of position to go get a hit; I’d much rather be on the right side of the puck. I didn’t have a real hard time with our physicality. I didn’t think we were being outhit badly, I didn’t look at the stats; usually the hit column is always an interesting one at home and on the road. On our forecheck we want to promote physicality, just to get the D to rush the puck, to rush their plays, but I didn’t feel it was a problem. I thought our guys were actually doing a pretty good job of it.
But the questions didn’t stop. Reporters wondered why Zack Kassian was allowed to get away with ‘running the Oilers show’ in previous encounters. They questioned the Oilers’ commitment to physical hockey in the game against Vancouver. Eakins continued in the same vein:
Do you know what the perfect game is? The perfect game is no hits. Do you know why that is? It’s because you have the puck. You don’t have to hit anybody; you have the puck. I don’t know; the stats sheet said we outhit them 28-to-13. Would I have liked more hits? I don’t know, I thought we were good tonight.
That wasn’t all Eakins said. He referenced the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore situation and made it plain he didn’t ever want to see his team get into a position where they were hunting a specific opponent. He emphasized that the game was close and that he didn’t get how taking a bad penalty was going to help the Oilers win it. He talked about his preference that fights arise organically out of the emotion of the game rather than ritualistically because two fighters happened to be on the ice at the same time.
And he got snarky, in one exchange challenging a reporter who said the team’s 28-13 hit count wasn’t good enough with “Well, we’ll try to up that to 40-13. Would that be better for you, or would 40 not be enough? 60? No, I’m asking you!”
There may be some who write off the Oilers’ favourable hit count against Vancouver as a product of a friendly home scorer. That chart above should give them some pause. The NHL’s real-time statistics are notoriusly prone to counter bias, and that bias can run in one direction or it can run in the other. To cancel out the bias, typically road-only numbers are used, and the Oilers’ road numbers say something very different than their numbers at home.
At home, the Oilers rank 25th in the NHL in hits. On the road, they rank fourth. Only the New Jersey Devils have hits counted less frequently at home relative to on the road. Given that Eakins referenced the difference between home and road numbers, it’s probably fair to say he noticed the trend.
Maybe Edmonton plays a totally different game at home than they do on the road. More likely, the stats crew at Rexall undercounts hits relative to the league average. So when that incredibly pessimistic Rexall counter says the Oilers out-hit Vancouver by a 2:1 margin, that’s something worth noting.
Oh, and the other, unrelated, thing worth noting on this chart? If the road numbers are accurate, the Oilers have been landing a lot of hits. If Dallas Eakins is right, that suggests they’ve spent a lot of time without the puck away from Rexall. Personally, I think that sounds a lot like the season I’ve been watching.