It is never ideal when you have more road wins than home victories, especially when you only have 15 road victories. The Oilers have been a much more consistent and competitive team away from Edmonton recently, but if they want to stay in the hunt until the final week of the season they need to start showing up on home ice.
At home they’ve faced many teams on the second half of a back-to-back and haven’t used that to their advantage. They must tonight against the Canucks who scored two goals in the third and defeated Toronto in overtime at home last night.
1. Ken Hitchcock explained the difference he’s seen from his team on the road compared to home.
“We’ve been guilty of looking for space rather than fighting for space,” said Hitchcock. “On the road we have been willing to work for it. It doesn’t matter if you are in the playoffs now. You are either fighting for a playoff spot or you are fighting for a job. Our best game is when we check. Check for chances, check to keep the puck and when we have that attitude we are good. I want to bring that from the road to home.”
2. The Oilers did win their previous two home games over the Ducks and Islanders, before heading on the road, so maybe they have figured out how to get the home crowd excited. However, prior to those victories they’d only won two of their previous 14 home games between December 18th and February 19th. It was a two month run of unacceptable home play. They were outscored 39-61 in that span. On home ice. The frustrating part of that two-month famine was they started the season very well on home ice, going 10-4-1.
3. The recent 3-1-1 road trip by the Oilers had them playing sound defence in four of the five games. They didn’t show up in Toronto, but were very good the other four games. Their overall team defence has been much better for the past few weeks, and it isn’t a coincidence that coincides with the return of Andrej Sekera and Oscar Klefbom. I asked Hitchcock what those two bring to the overall team defence.
“We just got the analytics for the past ten games or so with those guys (Sekera and Klefbom) in the lineup and it is black and white. It is simple. We spend so much less time in our zone than we did before. We aren’t stuck in the zone. We aren’t defending for extra time. We’ve been top-five in the league in getting out of the zone under pressure (since their return). I think there has been maybe two other teams better than us in spending less time in our zone,” said Hitchcock.
4. Hitchcock then went on to discuss the value of D-men who can transport the puck.
“When you spend less time in the zone and get out, not clean necessarily, but you get out on first touch that is a good thing. The other thing they do very well is they create separation out of coverage. In other words, you are in coverage and a lot of times when you get the puck the first thing you do is rim it or feed it somewhere else, but you are still in coverage. They (Sekera/Klefbom) skate it out of those areas and they buy us time to get open for them. That is composure, and that composure is feeding into other people.
“We had all sorts of effort before (Klef and Sekera returned), but we kept sticking ourselves back in coverage and we would give up a lot of goals against getting worn down. That isn’t happening now as much.”
5. Sekera isn’t playing a lot, and I’m not sure he would be as effective in a top-four role against the top forwards, but he is an outstanding third pairing defender right now. The other thing Sekera brings is a presence in the dressing room. He can be calming, but he also isn’t afraid to let players know when they need to do more. He is highly respected in the room and from what I’m told by coaches and players he has a knack of knowing when to say the right thing. Those things don’t show up on a stat sheet, but they are important for any successful team.
6. The Canucks only have three wins in their previous 14 road games and they’ve been shutout five times. Their road PP has really struggled going 5-of-47 (10.6%) during that span. They played last night, they are banged up and are just behind Edmonton in the playoff picture. The issue for the Oilers is the Canucks are 2-0-1 against them this season and their PP has ripped the Oilers to the tune of 40% with four goals on ten PP opportunities. The Canucks work extremely hard, and Connor McDavid has spoke glowingly about how difficult it is to generate chances against them. The Oilers have to match their intensity and they can’t turn pucks over when Vancouver forechecks aggressively. Moving the puck out quickly and accurately is a must and Edmonton needs to protect the neutral zone and limit turnovers between the bluelines. That is how Vancouver has had success this season. The Oilers turned pucks over at both bluelines far too often.
7. Zack Kassian has looked comfortable on the top line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, and that isn’t as easy as people think. Playing with elite players can be very difficult for some players. Kassian had a stint with the Daniel and Henrik Sedin a few years ago in Vancouver and had a career-best 14 goals. I asked Kassian about the differences for him playing on the top line compared to the bottom six.
“It is a different style of play playing with them. It is a lot more puck possession, good with your stick in the O-zone, holding on to pucks, really creating space, finding holes and reading off of them. When you play in the bottom six you are dumping it most of the time, you are being really physical, and you play and in your face type of game,” said Kassian. He has adjusted well and his versatility has become quite valuable on a team desperate for some complementary scoring.
8. Does Kassian like playing the more offensive style?
“It is fun scoring goals, but it is fun playing first or fourth line because you are in the NHL. I feel I have a unique skillset where I can play higher up or further down depending on the situation. We ended up trying me there (top line) and it has worked out a little bit. I’ve always felt I could play anywhere up and down the lineup, and maybe it is about more opportunity. In saying that, I’m not saying I’m a first line player. I can play there, but I will play wherever the coach plays me. I feel I can help in different roles.”
9. Opportunity is huge factor in success for many players. Some players can handle the added pressure, while others aren’t ready for it at certain times in their career. Kassian scored “goal scorer” type goals in Columbus and Buffalo. His one-timer against the Sabres was a beauty, but not something we’ve seen often from him. Mainly because very few bottom six forwards can make a cross-ice, cross-seam pass like McDavid did, but also because Kassian wouldn’t be in that shooter’s spot when playing in the bottom six. On that goal he showed why he was a first round pick in 2009.
“I think if you have the skill it doesn’t ever leave you, it is just a matter who you play with. In the bottom six you are creating a lot off the cycle, holding on to pucks and first in the corner to get pucks. With those two guys (97 and 29) you are in front of the net trying to create havoc and then a lot of the time if they have it you are trying to get open because they can find you. You have to go to different places on the ice when you play with them,” said Kassian.
10. Tyler Benson, 47 points in 54 games, is getting a lot of press, and rightfully so, for his solid rookie campaign in the AHL, but don’t sleep on Cooper Marody. He picked up two points last night and now has 45 in 44 games. Marody needs to add a bit of speed, but I think he will push for an NHL job next year as much, if not more, than Benson. The Oilers might finally be in a position over the next few seasons where they will have a steady stream of young forwards who can be recalled and produce. And they have different types of players. Marody will most likely be a bottom six centre and there is nothing wrong with that. Productive bottom-six forwards are a must if you want to be competitive, but he is also solid defensively. Benson might become a second line player, but is for sure a third liner, while Kailer Yamamoto might become a complementary first line winger. I’d like to see Benson and Yamamoto given a bit more time to blossom in the minors next season, but they, like Marody, should get a few NHL games next season at some point.
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Source: NHL, Official Game Page, 3/7/2019 – 7:00 am MT