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Edmonton Oilers v. LA Kings Game 4: A Tactical Review

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Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
10 months ago
At the outset of this series, I wrote that the Edmonton Oilers were going to give up chances. Given the tactics the Oilers use, how they execute those tactics and the offense first mindset of team, there was no question the LA Kings would get chances.
However, for the first three games, the Oilers were excellent at keeping the chances against relatively low. Sure, the Kings were up 2-1, but the series could have easily been 3-0 for the Oilers mostly because of the disciplined approach the Oilers took. In addition, it was the Kings that were having challenges in using their systems to impact the games in a material way. The series was not quite “opposite George”, but it was getting there. Then came game four. The Oilers started to break down tactically and the chances started to pile up for the Kings. However, a weird thing happened on the way to an Oilers loss. It was the Kings that lost their way at the worst possible time and Evan Bouchard and Zach Hyman made them pay.

What Did I See?

A Failure To Execute By The Oilers

Tactically speaking, both teams remained locked into the systems they had played in the prior three games. There was one change in personnel deployment that we will discuss at the end, but the tactics were exact replicas of games one through three. For both teams, what changed in game four at varying times was the execution. For the Oilers, here is a clip that really captures a decent amount of the first and third periods for them. In the clip, the Kings run the 1-3-1 forecheck and the Oilers are slow to attack. When they do attack, they use the hard rim around to the Kings’ right-side wall. The Kings contain the puck and reverse it back to the side where the Oiler forecheck is further away. In this instance, the Oilers get caught with all three forwards down below the circles and spread wide across the ice. This runs contrary to their normal 1-2-2 where that third forward gets well above the puck into the slot area looking for mid-lane intercepts. The result is the Kings break out fairly easily and have a partial 3v2 although Foegele does a decent job of backtracking to cause some grief.

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Here is another example of the failure to execute by the Oilers on the 1-2-2. McDavid gets caught on the wall instead of marking Doughty in the F3. The wall pass was for Ekholm to manage by pinching down on the Kings forward. Then all three forwards get caught below the circles and now the Kings have four players going on the rush up the ice.

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Of course, the most obvious failure to execute by the Oilers was on the Kings’ first goal last night. Here we have the 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck that the Oilers switched to this season. Foegele is probably too low, but his positioning did not cause this issue. The primary issue was the two defencemen getting out of sorts on their positioning. Typically, you want D1 and D2 playing inside the dots at about center ice. The Kings ran a player deep up the middle of the ice so Nurse backed up. However, he failed to properly mark him by stepping up. Desharnais also leaked to the middle of the ice which allowed his check to get to the outside. Now there a potential 2v1 was developing on Nurse. At that point, Yamamoto needed to beat his man back to the slot, which he did not. The result was the goal against. This was a very nice set play by the Kings, but the Oilers’ failure to execute the 1-2-2 allowed this to be more dangerous than it otherwise should have been.

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I would add one final note that this type of play is countered more efficiently using the 1-1-3 neutral zone forecheck. The pass likely does not get through down the middle and, if it does, there is a wall of players spread out across the ice that the Kings’ attackers would have to navigate. That said, this was one of the first breakdowns of the Oilers’ neutral zone forecheck. It just was a painful one.

The Recovery

There was a lot of post-game commentary about how the Oilers didn’t play with speed against the Kings in parts of the game. Also, I heard that the Oilers needed to get into a puck possession game and they seemed to be more focused on quick strike counterattacks. I could see both of those points in small parts of the game, but honestly, I thought the Oilers just were not executing their tactics as they had done in the first three games of the series. This certainly changed in the second period when the Oilers started to execute much better. Here is an example of that improved play and how to beat the 1-3-1 of the Kings. Simply put, don’t wait. Mattias Ekholm has made a living doing this all series. He sees the King’s forward decide to change, so instead of waiting until the Kings get set, he moves the puck quickly and the Oilers have an opportunity to attack.

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Here is another Mattias Ekholm example and honestly I could write a thousand words on this play alone. First, Ekholm moves up the ice quickly and that prohibits the Kings F1 from directing him to D1. Instead, Ekholm gets up the side with two forwards to his left flank. Then watch the cheeky little pass that he makes to McDavid and the corresponding move to the middle that McDavid makes. In the 1-3-1, the strong-side defender is supposed to step up and squeeze the play out. In this case, it is the Kings forward that is accountable here. He promptly steps up, but does so to the middle, which then leaves Kane unmarked on the wing. Would this have happened if this play was on the D1 side? Maybe, but for certain if you are attacking, you want to attack the forward side of the 1-3-1 in hopes of a controlled entry. Back to the play. Once McDavid makes his dive to the middle, every Kings player in the vicinity immediately collapses to him. McDavid makes a sublime pass to the unmarked Kane who scores on a great wrist shot.

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From a coach’s perspective, this is brilliant execution and I would be willing to bet Jay Woodcroft shows this play many times in the video session today.

The Kings Collapse

As mentioned at the outset, this game result came off a surprising failure by the Kings in executing their system. It was not so much the Oilers perfecting a counter-attack, although the Bouchard pass was incredible, but the Kings simply failing. On the overtime goal, the Kings dump the puck out and Bouchard sprints back to gather it up. Now the read for forecheckers when there is no line change happening is whether the defending team has or will gain possession with space to operate. If the player is under pressure and the puck is loose or just being controlled, the attacking team usually goes into its offensive zone forecheck. For the Kings, that is the 1-2-2 “wide”. In this case, Bouchard gathers the puck and gets to the back side of the net with ease. At this point, the Kings should have dropped into their 1-3-1. However, Kempe carries on down low and with Kopitar already there. the Kings are immediately in trouble. Bouchard makes the pass to Hyman on the wall. When we stop the clip here, you can see the Kings are in a mess. The F3 isn’t really sure what to do and so took the middle of the ice where Draisaitl was located. Doughty is treating it like the 1-3-1 and is caught in the middle of the ice. These reads by F3 and D1 give Hyman the space he needs on his off-wing to step in a take a shot from a really good angle. Game over.

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This was a mess from start to finish by the Kings. While individual plays usually do not “cost” teams a game, this play did. Whether it costs them the series is yet to be determined.
One final note about this game surrounds Woodcroft going to the nuclear option a lot this game. McDavid and Draistail were each other’s most common forward linemates. That left Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to center a second line against Danault. RNH’s line got smoked in the head-to-head match-up. Should Woodcroft continue with the nuclear option, Nugent-Hopkins will need to be better. I wonder if Woodcroft will do a couple of things to help him out. At home, he can line match and maybe he tries to get Bjugstad out against Danault. In addition, I wonder if we see Dylan Holloway in game four in place of Kostin. Kostin played 3:37 and that put more strain on all of the wingers with the top two centers. If Holloway can give them eight to ten minutes in an 11-7 configuration, maybe that allows Woodcroft to give RNH a little better support
That’s all for this tactical review. See you again after game five.

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