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Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars Game 3: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Dallas Stars
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
24 days ago
One of the fun, but fringe parts, of a seven-game series against a good team is to watch the other team’s coaching staff and how they operate. What types of strategies do they employ? How do they deploy players? And maybe, most importantly: how do they adjust strategies and player deployment to what they see going on in the game?
In Game 3 of the Dallas-Edmonton series, we saw a very good coaching staff make subtle changes to how they wanted their players to play, which turned the game on its ear. It may also have turned the series. The problem here for Edmonton Oiler fans is that the Dallas Stars coaching staff made those changes and now the Oilers are down 2-1 in the series after losing 5-3 in game three. What changed and why, let’s have a look.

What Caught My Eye?

The Dallas Stretch Play

I was fortunate to attend last night’s game live. When you attend live, you can see things the camera doesn’t always show. Last night was one of those times. The Oilers were sheer brilliance for twenty minutes and good value, up 2-0 after the first. The Stars made a tactical adjustment that really changed the game’s dynamic. It wasn’t a new tactic. We talked about it after Game 1. This was the weakside stretch play.
In simple terms, the Dallas Stars were sending their weak-side forward up ice with abandon at every opportunity. The idea was to either catch the Oiler defence asleep and get a quick strike breakaway or generate some open ice in the neutral zone to allow the Stars to exit with pace. In Game 1, it was less effective because the Oilers’ defence played their weakside defence softer and the high forward was aware of the play and came back hard into the middle of the ice on transitions to mute the attack. Last night, the Oilers were far less effective in the counter and it is the number one tactical reason the game was lost. Let’s take a look at a clip that illustrated the effect this had on the Oilers.
In this case, Darnell Nurse activates up the ice as a part of the attack. However, watch him peel back hard when he believes Dallas is going to regain the puck. You can see in the first freeze frame why. Dallas has sent a player to the Oilers blueline.  Now, in this case, Nurse probably didn’t need to react like this because Connor McDavid was in a good spot. He could have hung in the play and tried to regain the puck using pressure. However, he did not. All because Dallas was stretching this player on every shift in the second period. To compound matters, Nurse takes a very poor gap position given he has McDavid on the back pressure. He essentially allows the Stars attacker to walk right down to net front for a good chance against.

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I disliked Nurse’s gap control last night and this play was no exception. However, it all started when Dallas dictated the play by stretching their forward and the Oilers reacted.
Take a look at the game-winner as well. Here the play starts with the Oilers entering and Leon Draisaitl doing a nice job covering over the top in F3. Cody Ceci wins the wall battle and the puck goes back into the zone. However, it comes back up the same wall shortly thereafter and this time Draisaitl makes a mistake. In this case, when Ceci goes to pinch, Draisaitl doesn’t stay in the safe position overtop. Instead, he charges the puck carrier and that play creates a jailbreak for the Stars going the other way.
Again, it starts with the Stars stretching their weak side forward who puts the puck down low. Now the Stars are on the attack. In this instance, the Oilers recover, sort of except they are not in a tight box plus one. Look on the freeze frame. Draisaitl is over top of the puck instead of below it and either in the slot or net front. As for Darnell Nurse, I just really don’t know what he is doing. He needed to be on the strong side in this case. There was literally no Stars player to mark where he was standing. The puck gets low to Dallas #21 and Nurse is late to react as is Draisaitl and that is the game.

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This play ended with some very questionable defensive zone work, but it all started with a great tactical counter by the Stars. Running their weakside forward all night gave them numerous looks that the Oilers could not handle.

The Defensive Zone

Now it just wasn’t all great Dallas plays. The Oilers let some of their defensive zone demons out. We saw that in the game-winning goal and it was prevalent in this game and let to goals against. Here is the Dallas second goal against. Once again, it starts with a stretch play up the weak side. In this case, the Oilers are in a good position outmanning Dallas. However, then watch Connor McDavid. Instead of seeing Ekholm up ice and staying put, he locks in on the puck carrier and allows two Stars behind him. Only Evan Bouchard is back. When the puck goes low, it results in an emergency call and everyone gets back to the net. All except Ryan Nugent-Hopkins who just watches Jason Robertson score from in tight.

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Then there was the first goal against as well. Here, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has to get the puck. He just has to. The Oilers struggled all night with getting the puck out as a forward group, with Dylan Holloway being the notable exception in the top nine. Then, once the play is in the zone, McDavid is late to his check, and Jason Robertson makes him pay.

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After playing some of their best defensive zone hockey in the first two games, I thought game three looked a lot like some games against Vancouver. Loose zone play, lack of composure and inability to exit the zone all combined to cause troubles for the Oilers.

The Defence

The Oilers’ defence with the exception of the first pair and Brett Kulak were a train wreck last night. Again, we have highlighted a lot of their challenges above, but even on simple plays, they failed to execute to take the pressure off. Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci and Vinny Desharnais were very poor all night. Here is just one clip that emphasizes the night. Desharnais with lots of time and a couple of options fails to get the puck up the ice. Instead, he turns it over to the Dallas Star player. As soon as he did that, the Stars were on the attack with massive space in the zone.  For certain, the Oilers forwards needed to support the play better. However, this was a very simple NHL hockey play and Vinny Desharnais failed to make it. It cost his team a goal.

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Nurse, Ceci, and Desharnais were all poor. I am not sure how the team can go forward with this group. They could play 11-7 and bring Broberg in or simply replace someone with Broberg, but the Oilers defence group is not getting it done.

The Positives

Going into Game 4, the Oilers do need to regroup. However, they have something to build off of. The Stars are effectively playing four defencemen. Last night, the four were ok, but they were susceptible to pressure from players. The Oilers forechecked very hard in the first period, but took their foot off the pedal the remaining two periods except in spots. They can be exposed because they are playing a lot of minutes. Watch the Oilers’ third goal and look at Warren Foegele’s forecheck, but also how the Dallas defenseman makes a very soft play trying to avoid contact. The result of a very good forecheck was a goal for the Oilers.

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The Oilers also need to exit the zone better because there is loose play by the Stars. Again, because the Stars are playing an aggressive forecheck, there is open ice available for the attack. Watch this very simple play by Dylan Holloway that led to the Oilers’ first goal. He scans the ice and sees the check coming and where the Oiler players are. He knows Kane will be streaking on the weakside. It’s a very effective play that gets the Oilers on the offence. Definitely some good luck in the Dallas defender dropping his stick, but the ice was there to be attacked.

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The Oiler forwards have to do a better job exiting. The wingers on the walls need to be better. The centers need to get low and help the defence with mid-lane looks. The defence has to be able to skate and pass the puck up the ice.

Notes For Game 4

Last night, we were shown why Ryan McLeod is a benefit. Don’t get me wrong. He hasn’t been good in the series in the offensive zone and he certainly played very tentatively in game two. Taking him out of the line-up was a bold move, but I cannot argue with the rationale. However, the one part of his game that is not easily replaced is his defensive zone work. He plays a very good defensive zone and he is a player the Oiler can count on to exit the zone. His absence hurt in this area in my opinion. We saw the defence group struggle to get the puck out of the zone and more forwards on the ice who can help are necessary.
It is time for a change on defence. Philip Broberg needs to come into the series. He is a great skating defender who uses his length to counter. He can also pass and skate the puck out of trouble and is very good at joining the rush. I suggested it was unfair to play him earlier, but I was wrong. He needs to come into the series.
Kudos to the fourth line. Yes, they were scored against, but we have highlighted the troubles of Vinny Desharnais here. The line was effective on the forecheck all night. Also, the coach was not afraid to start them in their own zone on face-offs against Dallas’ Jamie Benn line. They sawed off most of the night and it is a group that can be counted on.
That’s it for the Game 3 tactical review. See you after Game 4 on Thursday morning.

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