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Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars: A Tactical Preview

Edmonton Oilers Dallas Stars
Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
27 days ago
After overcoming a strong Vancouver Canucks team in Game 7 of their second-round series, the Oilers flew home knowing they would be up against the Dallas Stars for a trip to the Stanley Cup.
The Dallas Stars just beat the last two Stanley Cup champions in rounds one and two. The Dallas Stars, many people smarter than me, believe to be the deepest group in hockey. So, obviously, the Oilers should be the underdog in the series. Yet, there are many analytical models out there that have the Oilers winning this series.
While Vegas odds favour the Stars, it is very, very close. So why all of this tightness when the Oilers played two inferior opponents to Dallas and certainly has a major concern in the net? Let’s dig into what the Dallas Stars do and see if there are some answers to this question.

What Do I See In Dallas?

Well, probably the best state fair I’ve ever been to, but that’s not the point of this article. Although, seriously, the barbeque is off-the-charts good. Anyway, I digress.
This Stars team plays many of the ways Peter DeBoer has previously coached: a fairly standard set of tactics with an above-standard set of players, just as he had in Vegas and San Jose before that. So, for the Oilers coaching staff, it should not be difficult to identify the Stars’ approach to this series. It will be the make-up of the approach that will be the key.
The Stars tend to play at a lower tempo than other teams relying more on the cycle in-zone and opportunistic counter-attacks coming off their defensive zone work. Some of this relates to overall team speed, but some of it relates to an unwavering belief that their line-up will overcome other teams by the game’s end. The Stars really shine in their ability, up and down the lineup, to execute these systems with little fall-off from group to group. This team comes in waves and often takes advantage of the fall-off in talent level that other teams have lower in the roster.
So, what does this look like, and how do the Oilers counter? Let’s take a look at the video below.

Dallas Defensive Zone

The Dallas defensive zone is fairly aggressive in its attitude. It pressures the puck in many instances and only resorts to a passive zone when the opposition holds it in certain spots. When the puck is down low, the Stars are not afraid to pressure the puck with multiple players. The concept is to cut off the options of the puck carrier before he can get organized. If the puck gets up to the side wall, only then will the Stars tend to settle back into a box plus one style of defence. Here is an example from the most recent game against the Oilers in early April.
When the puck goes low, the Stars send three players to out-man the Oilers. When the puck returns low again, watch how aggressive the Stars are again in attacking the puck. Except this time, the weakside defenceman does not rotate over, and it leaves Ryan McLeod in a very nice spot to attack. Finally, the Stars attack again in the corner and win the battle this time. Notice the defenceman is now in a good spot on the net front.

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When the puck rotates up top, the Stars revert to a man-on-man style and pressure the puck very hard. This is where they try to generate counterattack opportunities. Watch the pressure the Stars exert in this clip when the Oilers move the puck to the top of the zone.
In this case, the Oilers run a nice counter with the weakside defenceman stepping down into the zone hoping for a pass into the open slot area. This play gets defended and when the puck returns up the wall, the Stars press hard again. This time, they are very close to turning the puck over for a breakaway the other way.

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The next clip covers the entire defensive zone in all phases. You see the dreaded swarm down low, the passive box plus one when the puck gets to the flanks, and the man-on-man pressure when the puck gets to the top.

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So, how do the Oilers counter this setup? We have seen a couple of clips where it has already happened. When the puck is low, the Stars have a tendency to lean heavily to the strong side and forget what might be going on behind them. Here is a great example of this on a transition play against Colorado.
Here we have an outside entry and stop up by Colorado. Take a look at how many Dallas players are watching the puck carrier. It allows a trailer to come right down the middle of the ice for a high-danger chance and a goal.

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Another way to beat this aggressive zone defence is to work the puck up top and create mismatches with forwards and defencemen going downhill against backpedalling attackers. This is commonly called the 2-3 offensive zone attack. It also has the added benefit of creating a lot of space in the slot area of the zone. Here is a great example (yes it’s interference) by Colorado. Watch the work by McKinnon coming up top and creating switches with Makar.

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The other way to do it is by creating lanes up top that allow for shots that can be used at the net. Either deflections or rebounds. This is probably one of the few times I would routinely encourage point shots. The net play on a 2-3 attack is usually 2v2. The Oilers have some players like Hyman and Kane as examples who are hard to deal with at the net. High-quality shots that are low and accurate may allow these two, in particular, to take advantage of the 2v2 situation. Here is a very good example from Colorado.

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The defensive zone work by both teams will be fascinating in this series. In the Dallas end, a very quick and highly skilled Oiler forward group will challenge their aggressive play. Another question that will be answered is whether the Oiler defensive pairings other than Ekholm-Bouchard can execute in the offensive zone. Nevertheless, this is one area of this series that the Oilers must find ways to exploit.

The Same Old Neutral Zone

The Oilers will face their second consecutive opponent that runs the 1-2-2 neutral zone. After dispensing with the 1-3-1 of L.A. in round one, the Oilers really were not impeded by the Canucks 1-2-2 neutral zone tactics. The Dallas Stars run the same type of scheme, but they are very good at it. The Stars are giving up the third least rush chances against in the playoffs. A decent amount of this relates to their neutral zone work.
The F1 is generally fairly aggressive for the Stars, with the four remaining players lying back in the neutral zone. Sometimes Dallas reverts to more of a 1-4 to slow the opposition team down, but it is not a consistent strategy. Here is a clip of a passive Stars 1-2-2. Notice the hard push by the F1 and the remaining four players between the center ice and blue lines.

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Here is an example of a more aggressive 1-2-2.
Watch how hard the F1 works to force the puck. The F1 even goes behind the net which is usually a mortal sin to commit. This time it leads to a turnover and the most fearsome part of the Dallas team. Their counterattack. This team is assassin like in finishing off turnovers.

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The Stars have a good 1-2-2 that can be dangerous. However, it can be exposed. The unit tends to get disconnected, creating many seams for change of side passes. This makes it easier to navigate. Here is one example of that type of play from the most recent Dallas-Edmonton regular season game.

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The Oilers will need to execute a similar plan as to the last series. The defence must quickly advance the puck up the ice by pass or skating. The team must look for opportunities to change sides as they come up the ice for an attack. They also need to be aware of the hard press by F1.
For Edmonton, they’ll be asking McDavid, Holloway and McLeod to exit the zone a lot. Other options include Darnell Nurse moving the puck up the ice by skating. Also, the Oilers must look for opportunities to change sides coming up the ice.

The Offensive Zone Forecheck

This is where the Oilers are going to need to work very hard. The Dallas Stars are incredibly structured in the offensive zone and make teams pay by making blind passes through the middle or chips up the wall. In addition, they will flat-out race to the puck to try and gain an advantage with F1 and F2. Watch this play where they do exactly this off the faceoff.
Then watch the discipline of F3. He’s slow, arriving by intention and coming from the weak side. Watch him scan the play to see what is going to happen, and then jump into an attack position.

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Here is an even longer clip in which the focus is F3. Watch how disciplined the Stars are in maintaining an F3. Even off switches, there is a constant awareness of the F3 position. Watch even at the net with Johnson (#53) realizes he is too deep and backs out to a better spot.

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The Oilers will receive a healthy dose of humility if they attempt to go out through the middle of the ice without creating lanes. In this case, Draisaitl (who had a very poor game that day) needed to take two strides up the ice to bring checkers to him. At worst he would have had an easy punt at the end of a long shift.
To counter this tactic, the Oilers absolutely, without fail, need to have a forward low in the zone. There have to be two options low (the forward and the defensive partner) in the event of a transition. The Oilers also need to exploit the wide side by activating the weakside defenceman, who will have a lane open to him. Here is a clip of the fourth line doing it very well against Dallas.

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The other element for the Oilers is they must maintain composure on their box plus one. The low forward and the weakside forward need to pay great attention to the F3 for Dallas. That player is the most dangerous player for Dallas on the attack and they look for him routinely. The Oilers were very disciplined in their own zone against Vancouver. No disrespect to Vancouver, but Dallas has far more scoring talent available to them across their four lines.

Series Match-Up Notes

The Stars have two injuries that will have major repercussions on the series. Roope Hintz has been in and out of the Stars line-up in the playoffs. He is a high-motor player who can counter some of the Oilers’ speed advantage. Without Hintz, the Stars have been forced to bring players like Evgenii Dadonov into their top nine, which weakens the group as a whole. His health makes the Stars a very strong top-nine forward group.
The other player of note is Jani Hakanpaa, and the giant Finnish defenceman has been out since mid-March. There are reports he is getting close to skating, but his absence leaves a hole in the Dallas blueline. The team has, in effect, really run a five defence group with Ryan Suter playing on the third with a spot player or, more routinely Miro Heiskanen steps in and double shifts. While the Stars defence group is a very strong top four, it leaves them a little short overall and on the penalty kill. This is a part of the team the Oilers need to exploit.
The Oilers need to exploit the third pairing because the top four of Dallas are very good. The pairing of Lindell and Tanev was used as the shutdown pairing against McKinnon in the prior round. While the pairing was exploited in terms of shots and high danger chances, it was more low event than expected. The other pairing is Heiskanen and Harley. These are two big-body, great skating, skilled defenders. Heiskanen leads the Stars in points with 13 in the 12 Stars playoff games. This pair can transition in the blink of an eye and is very dangerous. It will be fascinating to see what match-up the Stars seek with these two pairs. Regardless, the McDavid and Draisaitl lines will need to be very good and very focused defensively when Heiskanen and Harley are on the ice.
Up front will also have some very interesting match-ups. If Hintz is in the line-up, I would expect him to be with Jason Robertson and likely Joe Pavelski used in a shutdown role. That line had some modest trouble against the McDavid line in the regular season, so perhaps they see more of the Draisaitl line. If Hintz cannot play, then expect to see Matt Duchene step onto this line.
The other pairing of note is Jamie Benn with Wyatt Johnson. This line has been very good. It took the lion’s share of minutes against the McKinnon. Some of that was with Pavelski when Hintz was in the line-up, and some of it was with one of my favourite young players, Logan Stankoven. This line will be a lot of trouble for whomever it faces. The group has a great combination of skill, size and speed. It plays a very disciplined brand of hockey, and while it can bend in terms of shots against, it almost never breaks.
Stuart Skinner. This might be the series. Jake Oettinger is absolutely the better goalie coming into this series. He leads the playoffs in goals saved above average at 5v5. Skinner is the last of the remaining goalies. Skinner will face shots, no question, and he will need to win a game at some point in this series. If Skinner doesn’t meet the challenge, my expectation of a close series is out the window. The Oilers can certainly cover the situation with their defensive play. However, Skinner will need to rise to the occasion.
I can see why this series is very close in the final analysis. The Oilers have some natural scoring advantages over the Stars. Given the Oilers have done as good or even better job through the year than the Stars in defending, it makes sense that some see them as very competitive in the series. However, the goaltending equation will be critical. If the Oilers can solve that, it will likely lead to their first Cup appearance since 2006. If not, the old adage of “they could call it goalie” might come back to bite an organization that is laser-focused on winning championships.
That’s it for the series preview, everyone.
See you on Friday morning after Game 1.

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