Joe Pavelski was San Jose’s most successful offensive forward this season. His 68 points were 16 more than Logan Couture managed and 18 ahead of Joe Thornton, the Sharks’ next best forwards. He’s also played on the same line as either Thornton or Couture in every game of these playoffs.
Yet Pavelski has a single assist all series. At even-strength, he has only one shot over the last two games, both Oilers wins. Defensively, Edmonton’s done quality work against him, and the players in that matchup deserve some attention.
There has been some variation from game-to-game, particularly after Game 1, but it isn’t hard to pick out which players are doing the heavy lifting.
Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson have each played just over 20 minutes head-to-head against Pavelski at even-strength. Edmonton has controlled play for the most part with that duo on the ice, with a narrow edge in shot attempts.
That’s a little better than Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell have done. In 13-14 minutes each of head-to-head ice-time against Pavelski, Russell has broken even and Sekera has come in just below that. Realistically, there’s no significant difference between how the top two pairings have done; we’re looking at a short enough span of time that it’s not worth reading into that gap.
Both have held Pavelski’s line to break-even status or a little better. The real edge, surprisingly, has come with Edmonton’s third pairing on the ice.
The performance of Darnell Nurse and Matt Benning basically boils down to a couple of shifts in Game 2, where the Oilers managed to pin Pavelski’s line in its own end of the ice. The shot attempts were a whopping 9-0 in just two minutes of competition. McLellan and his staff have mostly avoided this matchup, wisely preferring to shelter the third pair, and they’ve been successful in doing so.
The primary forward matchup has been between Pavelski’s unit and the Oilers’ second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle. This is the kind of fact that would be fun to send backwards in time to early December, back when Eberle’s two-way game was getting torn to shreds (albeit with some justification). Now he’s playing a tough minutes role.
As was the case with the third pairing, most of the imbalance in the shot metrics comes from a relatively small number of shifts in Game 2. Unlike the third pair, this line has played nearly 20 minutes head-to-head at 5-on-5 and so far has shown no signs of losing the battle.
The first and third lines have also spend some time against Pavelski, with the exact ratio varying depending on the game. Connor McDavid saw a lot of Pavelski in Game 1 but less in the last two games; Zack Kassian’s promotion in Game 3 coincided with harder minutes. Edmonton isn’t losing these matchups, which speaks to some surprisingly good depth performances from Kassian, Drake Caggiula and even Mark Letestu.
The fourth line remains problematic. In the first two games, it didn’t play much against Pavelski, but in Game 3 saw some time against that line and didn’t do so well. We’re talking tiny samples, so it’s not good to read too much into it, but it does fit into the overall pattern of that unit being oddly unproductive.
McLellan’s strategy seems pretty conventional in that he’s reasonably content with anyone in his top-nine forward group or top-four defence corps playing tough minutes. Everyone in that group has done well, as has the Nurse/Benning duo in much more limited minutes.
The primary credit here, though, must go to an interesting mix of homegrown talent and big-name additions. Adam Larsson and Milan Lucic were signature moves for Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, and are rewarding him with solid work in a hard assignment. At the same time, the team is benefitting from the remaining holdovers of the last rebuild: Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and of course Klefbom. Those players can’t be overlooked, either.