The Edmonton Oilers have hit their nuclear launch code, metaphorically speaking.
Head coach Jay Woodcroft has elected to put superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together on the top-line in a do-or-die game six.
Down 3-2 in the series, the Oilers need to find a win tonight to force a game seven and keep themselves from another heartbreaking first-round exit.
The decision to put McDavid and Draisaitl together shouldn’t be taken lightly. Under Woodcroft, the pair only played 56 5×5 minutes together this season — an average of 1:33 per game, compared to 238 minutes, or an average of 5:24 per game under Dave Tippett earlier in the year.
No matter how you cut it, the offence is there for the pair. All season long, they contribute offence at a 44 percent rate above league average when on the ice at 5×5, while allowing opposing offence at a five percent rate above league average.
There’s no question about whether or not these two can play, and produce, together at the NHL level. They got paired together lots in the third period of game five combining on three goals to send the game to overtime.
What the Kings will now be able to do, however, is hard match who they want against the Oilers top line. Will it be the Anze Kopitar line, or the Philip Danault line? We’ll see in just under six hours.
Expected lineup in Game 6:
— Jack Michaels (@EdmontonJack) May 12, 2022
For the Oilers, however, the rest of the roster will have to step up in ways we have yet to see in the playoffs. Namely, the Oilers new-look second line of Evander Kane, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zach Hyman. This line is going to have to find a way to put the puck in the back of the net presumably against one of the Kopitar/Danault lines.
The Kings will have the last change, so they’ll get the matchups they want.
Down the lineup, the third and fourth lines just need to keep their heads above water. Having the Oilers’ strongest defensive forward in Jesse Puljujarvi on the third line should help.
The Oilers’ defence will need to be at the top of their game. Brett Kulak showed he can munch minutes alongside Cody Ceci when Darnell Nurse was injured late in the year, while the second pair of Duncan Keith and Evan Bouchard need to have the bounceback games of their lives.
The third pair… well… we’ve seen this story before. Kris Russell and Tyson Barrie have seldom been a strong pairing for the Oilers and can be easily exposed.
All in all, every single player is going to need to bring their A-game right off the opening faceoff.