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Analyzing what went wrong in Game 1, and what the Edmonton Oilers must do to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights

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Photo credit:© Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
24 days ago
What a postseason it’s been for Leon Draisaitl. With an impressive four-goal performance on Wednesday night, Draisaitl leads the NHL with 11 playoff goals, the most goals scored by a single player in the first seven games of the playoffs since 1919. 
Alas, it wasn’t enough, as the Edmonton Oilers lost to the Vegas Golden Knights 6-4 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Second Round. With that loss, Edmonton has now lost the first game of a playoff series eight out of nine times in the McDavid and Draisaitl era. 
Without further ado, let’s go through what went wrong in Game 1, and what Edmonton must do to defeat Vegas in this series.

Breaking down Game 1

Goals on special teams were 2-1 in favor of Edmonton, but 5v5 goals were 4-2 in favor of Vegas. Here’s a 5v5 statistical breakdown of Game 1.
First, let’s being with some positives.
Edmonton was excellent off the cycle, out-shooting Vegas 16 – 5 in cycle shot attempts. They finished the game with more controlled zone entries & recovered dump-ins, and once they successfully entered, they were strong at establishing possession in the offensive zone and creating shots/chances. This was also one of Edmonton’s major strengths in the first round, as they outshot LA 84 – 56 in cycle shot attempts. 
Here’s a video example of a strong shift midway through the second. Kane carries the puck out of the DZ and dumps the puck in, and the Vegas defender initially retrieves it, but Kostin and Bouchard force the turnover. The puck stays in the offensive zone for nearly 50 seconds, and eventually, Vegas ices the puck.

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Here’s another shift right at the end of the 2nd period, where Edmonton wins the faceoff and spends the final 30 seconds in the OZ. Ekholm nearly scores off a royal-road pass from McDavid, and the period ends with a drawn penalty.

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Score effects do play a role here, but Vegas never really generated much off the cycle all game. In-zone offence was indeed a strength for Edmonton in Game 1.
Now let’s move on to the bad. Per Natural Stat Trick, Vegas finished the game with a 56% score-adjusted expected goal share.
In the first round, LA finished the series with more offensive zone entries (partially due to score effects), and just one less controlled entry, but where Edmonton possessed the significant edge was generating quality shots off their entries. 46 of their controlled entries led to a scoring chance, whereas just 25 of LA’s controlled entries led to a chance. 
However, this was not a strength for Edmonton in Game 1. Vegas generated 11 quality scoring chances off their controlled entries, the same amount that LA created in Games 1-3 of the first-round combined. Meanwhile, just 5 of Edmonton’s controlled entries led to a chance in Game 1. Completely removing score effects, rush chances were 9 – 2 Vegas at the time of their 5th goal. 
Let’s review some more video. Firstly, here are the two goals Vegas scored off the rush. On the 2-1 goal, it’s not a good backcheck by Draisaitl, but Nurse overcommits, and it ends up with too much space for Amadio. As for the 5-3 goal, Kostin can’t clear the puck out efficiently and Vegas enters right back into the OZ. Both Kostin and Bouchard give them too much space, and Stone fires a perfect cross-slot pass to Stephenson who buries it.

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Let’s go through more of Vegas’ rush chances. In this play below, Vegas perfectly executes a rush up the ice, starting with a quick breakout. Draisaitl doesn’t look great here either, and Desharnais is too passive and allows a pass to the slot, leading to a high-danger shot against.

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On this one, Broberg allows the initial entry pass, and Marchessault is easily able to beat Ceci to fire a dangerous shot. Again, an excellent transitional play by Vegas.

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This play begins with a missed breakout attempt by Nurse, whose clearing attempt bounces off the official’s skate. Hyman gets to the puck just above the blueline, but can’t move it ahead successfully, and Kulak is caught up high, leading to a two-on-one and another chance against.

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I could go through even more, as Vegas had several odd-man-rushes in that game that I didn’t include here, but I think you get the point. Edmonton was far inferior at creating and defending chances in transition, and both the Fs and D are to blame here.
As for the forecheck, that’s an interesting situation. Edmonton had 23 DZ turnovers, and Vegas had 22, so it was fairly close in that regard. Edmonton doubled them in recovered dump-ins, and yet, forecheck shots were still 9 – 4 in favor of Vegas. Quickly capitalizing on the turnovers they create is an area the Oilers need to improve at. I also think Edmonton had some trouble  adjusting to a more aggressive Vegas forecheck early in the game, especially after 6 games against an LA team that preferred to clog the NZ.
All-in-all, while Game 1 wasn’t a disaster, there are plenty of things to clean up. Stuart Skinner has to be much better, but I believe Edmonton’s skaters have several areas for improvement. Here are the primary keys to success in this series for the Oilers:

Major keys to defeating Vegas

May 3, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Vegas Golden Knights right wing Mark Stone (61) defends against Edmonton Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse (25) during the third period of game one of the second round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
      1.  Win the rush game
In Game 1, Edmonton entered the offensive zone with control 57 percent of the time. In comparison, they entered with control 45 percent of the time against LA in the first round. Vegas doesn’t run a 1-3-1 in the NZ like LA did, and they allow opponents to enter their zone with possession at a higher rate than LA by a solid margin. Edmonton should take advantage of this.
Edmonton held a 65 percent rush chance differential in the first round. Their performance off the rush was a huge key to their success against LA, and the Oilers need to ensure it isn’t their downfall in this series. Again, there were simply too many high-danger rush chances allowed in Game 1, and that cannot continue.
In regard to defending the rush, improvement in this area can start with more/better back support from the forwards. Some roster fixes could also be beneficial, and I think I’d start with sitting Vincent Desharnais. When targeting Desharnais at the blueline, opponents have entered the zone with control 70 percent of the time, while the rest of the defensive core sits at 57 percent. He also has the worst DZ turnover rate on the team. Desharnais’ story is a fun one to cheer for, but simply put, his mobility and skating are major deficiencies in his game, and opposing teams are exposing that weakness off the rush.
In the regular season, Broberg was Edmonton’s best defenceman at preventing controlled entries, with opponents entering with control just 42 percent of the time against Broberg. Of course, he accomplished this in a very sheltered role, but right now, I believe he remains a superior option on the third-pairing over Desharnais against faster teams like Vegas.
Furthermore, opponents have generated more rush chances against Darnell Nurse than any other Oiler defenceman on the blueline in the playoffs. I think Nurse could use some help in this area from a better partner, which is why I believe it may be a wise idea to try Brett Kulak on the second pair. For the entirety of these playoffs thus far, just one quality shot has been generated on a controlled entry against Kulak, and he also has the lowest (best) turnover rate on the team. Overall, Kulak has played exceptionally well in his current role.
I think it’s well past the time to split up the duo of Nurse and Ceci. Kulak did have some experience at RD in Montreal, and with the way he’s performed in the playoffs, I’d give him a shot with Nurse on the second pair.
As for rush offence, a major component of it begins with efficient breakouts. Against LA, Edmonton’s defencemen averaged 88 puck touches per hour under forecheck pressure in the DZ, whereas they were at 123 DZ touches per hour in Game 1 against Vegas, so Vegas’ forecheck is certainly more aggressive. Kulak, Bouchard, and Ekholm have been strong at moving the puck with control and limiting turnovers under pressure, while Nurse, Ceci, and Desharnais must improve. I think Edmonton’s defensemen could use more puck support from the forwards down low in the DZ.
On the bright side, Connor McDavid is starting to explode off the rush. LA limited his transitional game in the first few games of Round 1, but in Game 6, he had ten zone entries, eight with control. In Game 1 against Vegas, he had eleven zone entries, ten with control, and generated three of Edmonton’s five rush chances. Good sign.
Also, adding a speedy Dylan Holloway into the lineup would help Edmonton’s bottom-six generate offence off the rush.
      2.  Counter Vegas’ forward depth
The Golden Knights possess a pretty strong and balanced forward lineup. Vegas deploys Eichel and Marchessault on the top line, Stone and Stephenson on the second line, and Karlsson and Smith on the third line. 
Last season, secondary scoring from Edmonton’s top-six players apart from McDavid and Draisaitl was a major reason for their WCF run. Evander Kane scored 13 goals, Zach Hyman scored 11, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had 14 points. Now, Kane’s 22% shooting percentage was unsustainable, but nevertheless, they haven’t obtained enough from their three $5M players this postseason. Kane has been reported to be playing with both an upper and lower-body injury. I wonder if Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins are also playing through injuries, as they haven’t been nearly as effective as they usually are, especially RNH, who has just 1 5v5 point and 0 goals.
Draisaitl isn’t scoring four goals every game. One way or another, the team will likely need more out of the rest of the top-six if they wish to go far in this postseason, while they also need to match Vegas’ lines.
I’d start by splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl and allowing them to run their own lines, although it looks like Jay Woodcroft will continue deploying them together for Game 2. With Vegas having a strong duo on each of their top three lines, I’m doubtful that loading McDavid and Draisaitl on the same line is the most effective strategy, but I guess we’ll wait and see.
      3. Attack the slot area
Public expected goal models have some flaws, but one stat I occasionally use to evaluate team defensive play is average xG value per shot attempt against (xGA/FA). A high value means a team allows a high number of quality shots relative to the shot volume they give up, while a low number means the opposite. In the regular season, Vegas had the 2nd lowest (a.k.a. best) xGA/FA in the entire league. While Vegas does allow more controlled entries than LA, a major component of their game is defending the slot area. 
With that in mind, it’s interesting that Vegas is subpar at defending puck movement or shots off passes per Corey Sznajder’s tracking. In the regular season, Vegas ranked 25th in the league in HD Passes allowed (cross-slot passes + behind-the-net passes), while LA was actually 1st (!) in the league. 
In spite of this, shots off HD Passes were 21 – 9 in favor of Edmonton in the first round against LA. Furthermore, the Oilers led the league in average shot quality for (xGF/FF) in the regular seasonEdmonton must continue generating slot chances as they have throughout the entire season.
      4.  Sustain power-play dominance
This one is pretty obvious. Currently, Edmonton’s power-play percentage sits at 57.9 percent, while Vegas’ penalty-kill is at an abysmal 53.3 percent. Even if Edmonton only manages to keep the game even at 5v5, it will be difficult for Vegas to emerge victorious if Edmonton’s power-play keeps firing on all cylinders. 
In the McDavid/Draisaitl era, the Oilers have won the second game of a playoff series six out of eight times. Game 2 is tonight at 5:00 PM MT. Let’s see how they respond.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid).

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