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Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars Game 1: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Dallas Stars
Photo credit:Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
25 days ago
Coming into the Stanley Cup semi-final series, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how the Oilers were in for a challenge like they had yet to face.
The Dallas Stars had just beaten the last two Stanley Cup champions in a manner that had allowed them to rest. The Oilers, meanwhile, had to go seven games against Vancouver. Seven very physical games that clearly had slowed some Oiler players. For one night though, the Edmonton Oilers laid to rest those anxieties. In a game where they carried the play and had the statistics to back it up, the Oilers looked the faster and fresher team pulling out a 3-2 win in 2OT. How did they do it? Can they repeat it on Saturday? Let’s roll the tape and see if we can answer those questions.

What Caught My Eye?

The Stars Forecheck

We talked in the series preview about the Stars’ aggression on the forecheck. In particular, the F1 is very hard on the puck carrier regardless of where the puck is on the ice. Even when the opposition has the puck behind the net, the Stars often press F1 to attack, which traditionally is a no-no for many coaches. The plan for the Stars is to not allow the opposition team to get set-up to exit. F1 drives to the puck and forces the puck carrier to one side. F2 immediately comes down hard to create a turnover because the opposition team isn’t ready for that instance of pressure. That tactic was on full display last night against the Oilers. Have a look at this clip here.
Watch how aggressive F1 is on the puck. When the Oilers puck carrier makes his move, F2 jumps hard down to attack. The result is a turnover and an immediate attack.

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Here was another example of the same type of play leading to another turnover and the puck going back down into the Edmonton zone.

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However, the Oilers were clearly ready for this tactic because, for the most part, they defeated this forecheck easily all night. The best part is they did it in a number of ways. The primary way was to have a very low forward available for the defenceman to outlet when the forecheck came. Watch this clip of Leon Draisaitl doing this exact thing.

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The Oilers’ defence was very aggressive about skating the puck out of trouble as well. Often using the net as a shield and reacting once the forechecker made his move. Darnell Nurse had an excellent game in this regard.

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They also moved the puck fairly quickly most of the night, preventing the Stars’ forecheck from getting on them. In essence, they countered the Stars trying to attack when the Oilers weren’t ready by being ready. Or something like that. Watch Brett Kulak on this play. He scans the ice and clearly sees Dallas backed off on his side – perhaps on a change. He also has McLeod going low to help the defenceman, so he simply rotates up the wall to make himself another option. Cody Ceci makes a quick outlet before the Stars can get on him and away Kulak goes.

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The Oilers were excellent all night in this area of the game, which is one reason they did not spend much time in their zone.

Protecting The Slot

Another key aspect of this series is Dallas’s penchant for creating opportunities in the slot. The Stars are absolutely stone-cold about their desire to get players into the slot for open looks. This was one area that greatly concerned me coming into the series, as the Oilers can get lost in their coverage here.
In Game 1, the Oilers did have some wobbles. Watch the highlighted Stars player in both clips.

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In both cases, the Stars immediately send players to the slot on a transition play. The puck carrier is clearly coached to look for that option as a first read, which did create a couple of good looks.
Indeed, even on the Oilers’ second goal of the game, the Stars had a very clean look from the slot seconds earlier. The play starts with Connor McDavid doing a very nice job as the low forward. He reads Bouchard as being late to the side where the puck is going, so he rotates down. He does a great job shadowing the puck carrier and almost turning the puck over. Then there is a small breakdown. Zach Hyman leaks down from his spot to cover a player that McDavid is clearly going to get to and isn’t really a danger given the stick side of the Stars player with the puck. He’s in a tough spot to get the puck out to the Hyman side of the ice. As soon as Hyman comes down, the Stars defenceman slides right into the slot for a very good chance. The Oilers save the day by collapsing to the slot and are now off to the races.

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However, the Oilers were very good on the night in protecting the slot. Here is a longer clip of the good work done all night. This one happened to be the Draisaitl line, which was again very dominant. Watch the work by the Oilers to protect the slot on multiple occasions in this clip. In particular, I really liked the work of Holloway and Draisaitl and their switching in the second half of the clip.

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Managing this area of the ice will be absolutely critical to the Oilers’ chances of success in this series. Game one was an encouraging sign.

The Stars Breakout

Dallas introduced a new wrinkle in Game 1 related to their break-out, and it nearly worked two minutes into the game. The Stars ran one of their weak side forwards high on a stretch when the forward had confidence his team would gain possession. To be clear, they weren’t even waiting to see possession. If the puck was even 50-50, the Stars were sending the player.
The idea here was to take advantage of the skill sets of the individual defenders on both teams. For Dallas, their confidence that their defencemen could win pucks low and get them out of the zone. For Edmonton, Dallas clearly wanted to challenge the footspeed of the group overall. The other benefit this type of play has is to back off the Oilers’ attack by making the defencemen less aggressive in the zone. Watch this play about two minutes into the game.
Cody Ceci gets caught flatfooted at the line and not in a good safety valve position up ice. The Stars get a bit of a lucky break on this outlet, but it works nonetheless. Fortunately, Stuart Skinner saved the day. He was very good all night.

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However, I thought the Oilers were quick to react to this tactic and defended it well all night. The two adjustments were to have the weak side defenceman back off some both to mark the player up ice and allow the strong side defenceman to play up the ice between that player and the puck. Also, the Oilers were really cognizant of bringing their high forward, even a bit higher, to help in this area. Here are a couple of very good clips where you see this work at play.
The first is off the face-off. Watch Leon Draisaitl back into a good F3 spot and Darnell Nurse plays nice and high in the safety valve position. The result was that the Oilers outmanned the Stars here, leading to a very nice defensive play on the outlet.

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Here is another example. You cannot see Mattias Ekholm, but he is deep on the weak side protecting. In addition, McDavid sits in a nice high F3 spot. This allows Evan Bouchard to be aggressive up ice and make a very good play.

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The Swarm Part II

We talked a lot about the Stars’ defensive zone in the preview. The focus was that the Stars had a tendency to get exposed by flowing all of their guys to the puck and forgetting about the weak side of the ice. The Oilers nearly had a great chance early in the game.
Watch Zach Hyman here lock into a shot, and all of the Stars are rotating to him. That left a wide-open Evan Bouchard on the backside. Unfortunately, Hyman did not see Bouchard.

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However, the Oilers did catch the Stars eventually. And it was not the play everyone is talking about that started it. It was the first goal of the game. Watch when the puck moves back up top to Kulak. All five Stars defenders get locked on him, and no one pays attention to the weak side.
Was it a fluky bounce? For sure. Which is why Oilers fans shouldn’t complain about the two flukey plays on the goals against. However, Draisaitl is completely unmarked and the Stars cannot get there until it is too late.

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Of course, the more famous play was the overtime goal that Connor McDavid scored. This was a fantastic play by Ryan Nugent Hopkins, Evan Bouchard, and Connor McDavid. Love the play by Nugent-Hopkins to push hard on the forecheck. However, why were all of the Stars back behind the net. Again, this is their tendency, but man what a mistake. Then Nugent-Hopkins gets the puck up the wall. Again, all of the Stars who are back either flow to the puck or get mesmerized but no one sees McDavid slide into the slot. Bouchard makes a great read and plays in the face of hard pressure. Game over.

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Notes For Game Two

I really thought the Dallas coaching staff made a mistake when they juggled their lines moving Jamie Benn to a line with Wyatt Johnson and Logan Stankoven. Benn started the game with Seguin and Dadonov, and that line was very effective, holding a 73.6 percent expected goal share. The reason for the move was Johnson and Stankoven were getting mauled. They had an expected goal share of around 20 percent. However, the Benn move did not really help. The line was also caved at a 31 percent expected goal share and was on for the winning goal against. How DeBoer adjusts for game two will be interesting.
Another clear fact from game one is that Dallas does not have six defencemen. They only have five, and honestly, given how Suter plays, they have four. There is little trust in the sixth defenceman, and often, Suter plays with Heiskanen on a double shift. The fact that this group played an 80-minute game last night has to be a factor going forward. The Stars will need to find something on their defensive pairs.
In terms of the Lindell-Tanev pairing, they started against the McDavid line. Then were pulled off of them only to return later in the game. They were on for all three goals against, although they did at least tread water possession-wise all night. The pairing that was surprising was Heiskanen and Harley. While the pairing had some moments. They struggled mightily in their zone against the Draisaitl line. The pairing of Kane and Holloway was strong on the forecheck all evening. How that shakes out series-wide will be interesting.
The tempo of game one was relatively slow compared to other playoff games. I think this helps the Oilers. They are clearly the quicker team, but still, they are more effective as a cycling team. I will be curious to see if the Stars can dial up the pace in game two.
Stuart Skinner answered the bell. Great game. Encouraging signs in one area of the series where the Stars had a clear advantage.
That’s it for the Game 1 tactical review.
See you all Sunday morning.

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