Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars Game 4: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Dallas Stars
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
22 days ago
When the puck dropped on game four of the Western Conference Finals, it should have been no surprise the Edmonton Oilers would be tentative to start.
Given the controversy surrounding Darnell Nurse and Ryan McLeod’s re-deployment after being sat for a game, they could be excused for taking a few minutes to get it together. Those weren’t the only dynamics. The Oilers also inserted Corey Perry, meaning that Warren Foegele came out of the lineup. Oh, and Philip Broberg got in for his first game in more than a month, replacing Vinny Desharnais.
Right, I forgot. Since Desharnais is a right shot, the Oilers now had four left-shooting defencemen for three spots. So, Brett Kulak had to slide over and play his off-side with… wait for it… Darnell Nurse. So yes, perhaps being a little apprehensive to start was excusable. Should they have been down 2-0 after five minutes of play? No, but unfortunately that’s just how the bounces go sometimes. This makes it all the more impressive that the Oilers rallied from the early deficit to defeat the Dallas Stars 5-2 and even the best of seven series at two games each.
Perhaps just as important is how they did it.

What Caught My Eye?

I really liked the Oilers game last night, even quite early in the game. The team looked much more committed to executing some tactical ideas that could work against Dallas, but weren’t quite fully all the way there. Take a look at this clip as an example.
It starts really well. After a face-off loss, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins marks his man back up ice to prevent one of those stretch pass situations that have haunted the Oilers. When the puck is eventually put in the Oilers’ zone, Evan Bouchard scans the ice and sees he has only one forechecker with the other Dallas forwards changing. So, he does something that I think the Oilers can do at will: the quick up. Watch this great evasive turn by Bouchard and then the quick-up to Connor McDavid in full flight.
This was absolutely textbook and then we see the trouble. Again, for most of the shift, this was great fundamental hockey. However, here when McDavid enters, he creates his own problem. He and Nugent-Hopkins run a nice switch, but when McDavid drops the puck, he knows he is the deep forward. He needed to stop up in the middle of the ice to clog it up in case of a turnover. He doesn’t do that. In addition, Mattias Ekholm gets caught moving up ice when he needs to hold the position as the weakside defenceman. Nugent-Hopkins loses the puck and the Stars are off to the races.

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This is what the game’s first ten minutes felt like to me: The Oilers did a lot of good things, but they were not just finishing off the shift.

The Commitment To The Middle of The Ice

When the Oilers finally started to get into the game, full shifts started to click. The team really started to play a structured game that still lead to very good offensive zone time while blunting the Dallas counter-attack. Watch this first clip with Corey Perry.
Perry is such a smart player. In this play, he starts by covering for the defenceman who is low. He then comes around the net and has a choice. He could split the seam and try to get into the low slot or he can play higher in the slot, which can be as dangerous but also more responsible. What happens next is something we have highlighted in all series, as the Stars can get drawn to watching the puck. They do here and Perry ends up with the puck in a great spot to attack the net off a great pass by Ryan McLeod. Then once the puck is behind the net, Perry holds his ground, allowing him to be in position to rotate over to cover for the pinching defenceman. The result is a transition play for the Oilers.

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Here is another one with Adam Henrique and Evander Kane.
Again, watch him hold the high position and react to the Stars’ play. He is able to get on the boards and slow the puck and the Dallas players down, which prevents a clean exit with pace. In the meantime, he moves back up high to take the middle of the ice away and provide support for his defensemen.

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Finally, watch Leon Draisaitl here.
Draisaitl slides down into a low F3 position. He scans and sees Dallas players starting to cheat the zone and he turns and goes with them. The play ends up in a stalemate in the neutral zone and eventually, Brett Kulak retrieves the puck. This should have been an easy clear, but Kulak was challenged here given he was playing his off-side. We will talk about this more later.

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It wasn’t perfect tonight, but the Oilers as a group were far more committed to controlling the middle of the ice to stop the Dallas counters. Continuing this play will help the Oilers going forward.

The Quick Counter

Another tactic the Oilers need to exploit more is moving the puck quickly back up the ice on retrievals. We already saw a clip above where Evan Bouchard did it and the effect it had. The Stars are not a quick team, playing essentially with four defencemen. The more the Oilers can counter quickly, the more opportunities it should create. Here is a really simple play of what I mean. In this case, Philip Broberg hustles back on the retrieval. Instead of taking it to safety, he makes a quick turn up ice and delivers a great pass to Derek Ryan. Ryan deflected the puck into the zone, but look at the space Broberg had because he made a quick turn. The Stars can be exposed in these situations.

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On the Oilers second goal, watch Mattias Ekholm retrieve the puck.
He tight-turns and moves the puck up the ice quickly, catching the Stars overcommitted to one side and Connor McDavid with no check on the weak side. McDavid takes the middle ice and gets the puck, making a great shot pass and it is a goal for the Oilers.

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This quick strike work by the Oilers’ defence will not always work, but it should be their default look unless an Oiler change is underway.

Weak side Defense Activation

Let’s take a look at the goal we just saw once more. Look at who scored it. Look where he came from.

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That’s right. It’s Evan Bouchard, who was seconds before that deep in his zone. We have talked about the Stars’ propensity to get puck-watching to the strong side and there is a very natural opportunity for Oilers’ defence on the weak side to step into open seams for offensive looks.
I thought Darnell Nurse was excellent at this all night. Watch this clip where Nurse sees the Stars overload to the puck side again.
Draisaitl makes a great exit pass to Perry who touches it onto Nurse. Nurse now has a great lane to attack. He also makes a wonderful pick play on the Stars defender at the net. Look at all the Stars watching the puck and McLeod sneaks in behind them without a Dallas check and puts it upstairs.

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Again, this is a tactic that is available frequently for the Oilers against the Stars. The more they can do it, the better.

What About Joe Pavelski?

Look Joe Pavelski is a great player. Hall of Famer. A guy you want on your team. However, he has been a pain in the ass to the Edmonton Oilers for almost two decades. So when I get a chance to poke at him, I am going to take the opportunity. Watch the Oilers 4-2 goal with a focus on Pavelski.
He makes a good recovery play to start, then he heads off to change. There are two problems here. All of the Stars are on the strong side wall, leaving the middle of the ice open, and Pavelski doesn’t wait to ensure the puck gets deep into the Oilers zone. It doesn’t, and the puck comes to Draisaitl, who certainly would have been marked by Pavelski. It leads to a great goal by Draisaitl, and some of my scar tissue watching Pavelski play heals just a bit.

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Nurse and Kulak

It worked, sorta.
The Nurse-Kulak pairing wasn’t stellar, but they also were not exposed as much as wondered about. We talked above about a play Kulak made that gave him some trouble. Let’s look at it again.
Focus on the part of the play when Kulak gathers the puck. If he were a right shot, he would have gathered the puck and either skated or passed the puck up his strong side with his body as protection. In this case, because he is a left shot, his first instinct is to bring the puck to his forehand which is across his body. He realizes the forechecker will get to him so he has to retreat and send the puck around the other side.

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If this pairing stays together, this will be the play of concern in Dallas. Without the last change, it will be much harder for the Oilers to keep this pairing away from the tougher Dallas forward lines. These higher-pressure groups could cause him some issues.
What certainly wasn’t his blame was the first goal. This was a communication issue at most, but more likely a poor read by Connor McDavid. Here Kulak steps up to pin the Dallas attacker to the wall.
McDavid smartly gets in behind to protect the counter. However, McDavid sees the puck come loose and starts to attack up the ice. He really doesn’t have a chance to get there and Kulak has not retreated to his spot. Again, this is the forward’s responsibility. He has the whole play in front of him. He needs to wait for his defenceman to retreat to a good defensive position before taking up the attack.

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You can see McDavid’s reaction after the goal. He knows he was too aggressive here. In the end, he made up for it and did not cost the Oilers the win.

Notes For Game Five

Philip Broberg was solid in game four. There was no penalty kill time, but he played 14:21 all at even strength. He retrieved the puck very well and defended his blueline aggressively. He activated a few times and looked good doing so. It was a relatively low-event game for him and Ceci. This pairing played across most of the Stars’ forward lines and only struggled with the Benn line. I would expect Dallas to look for match-up opportunities in game five to see if they can exploit the pair.
The Chris Tanev injury is massive. I have said that since the series started, the Stars relied too heavily on four defenders. While it appears this injury came off a blocked shot, Tanev has taken a lot of punishment. Now, I would expect him to play the next game, but if he is limited at all, the Oilers need to look at ways to exploit that situation.
It was notable to me that rounding out the top six in terms of time on ice at 5v5 for Oiler forwards, Ryan McLeod and Dylan Holloway were fifth and sixth. Both men ahead of Evander Kane and Adam Henrique most notably. The two also paired with Leon Draisaitl for a couple of shifts in high-leverage moments defending the lead late in the game. This is encouraging for a team that needs youth in this playoff and the future.
That’s it for the Game 4 tactical review.
The pivotal fifth game goes Friday and I will meet you right back here on Saturday morning to discuss.

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