Edmonton Oilers vs. Dallas Stars Game 5: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Dallas Stars Western Conference Final
Photo credit:Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
15 days ago
On and off throughout this season, I have occasionally posted a note saying, “The Oilers aren’t a rush team” or “I wish the Oilers recognized they are a cycle team.”
I would get some pushback because the Oilers have the best player in the world and another who can be the best on many nights. They also have Evan Bouchard and a few others who can score at dynamic rates. This pushback wasn’t wrong.
The Oilers have some offensive firepower with a quick strike element, but the team itself is not built to play that way. The defence group isn’t one that is strong on puck management inside their zone causing some wobble in exiting the zone on their own. On the other hand, the team is big and strong with a lot of players who can protect the puck very well in close quarters. So for me, it was natural that this team should play strong defence low in their zone as a unit. When transitions happen, move up the ice as a unit. Once in-zone, use their size and skill to break other teams down off the cycle.
Last night was the perfect example of that gameplay. It’s not hyperbole. The Oilers held the Stars to their lowest expected goal number at 5v5 in the series at 1.32 and to their lowest 5v5 shot total of the series. The Oilers were patient in their own attack and simply wore down the Stars. The Oilers played a patient game in all three zones, took advantage of their specialty team advantage and now are one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals. Let’s take a look at the video to see how it all happened.

What Caught My Eye?

It is not an insult to say the Oilers played a patient game slowed the game down or didn’t have their typical vaunted offence. If anything those are compliments. This team can score like few others in the league. The problem is sometimes they can get scored on like few others in the league. The weird part is the former can happen at the same the latter is not happening. No question the Oilers can have some spotty goaltending from time to time and their defence and forwards aren’t always committed to a strong defensive structure.
However, the Oilers can play very good defence and have a lot this year. They can do that while also scoring goals. Last night was almost the perfect game for the Oilers in that sense. All five skaters were connected from below their own goal line to below the Dallas Stars’ goal line. It made for a brilliant night of defending and attacking that led to a 3-1 win.

The Defensive Zone Exit

Without a doubt, the Oilers exited their own zone last night better than any game in the playoffs. There was a lot of consternation about the Stars’ forecheck, but give the Oilers their due, they were very good all night. How did they do it? Well, the defence was very good on retrievals and turning the puck over. The Oilers also had a low forward to help on a consistent basis all night. No cheating at all. Maybe the biggest key was the exceptional wall play of the wingers in winning battles and making great plays to help the exit. Let’s take a look at three exits that exemplified the night.
This first clip shows why Corey Perry is in the lineup because he is so good at the exit. First, he drops down lower to get the puck, forcing the Dallas defender to come very low, bringing two other Dallas players to him. The Oilers are set up nicely with Draisaitl in support and the weakside in good spots for outlets. Watch Perry scan the ice and make a great pass to the weak side. McLeod stays low and opens up for Nurse and the outlet is complete.

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Here is another great exit. It starts with a ridiculous play by Evan Bouchard, who is certainly the MVP of this series. He bats the puck out of the air up the wall. Again, the Oilers forwards are in a good setup. Kane is down lower in the zone, Henrique is below the puck in a good support position and Holloway is low in the middle of the ice available for an outlet pass. The puck comes to Kane who does a great job shielding the Stars player. He sends the puck to Henrique, who makes a quick touch pass to Holloway for the exit.

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Here is the final one. This was something the Oilers did so well all night. They used their defence group to exit as well. In this case, Draisaitl goes low to recover a puck. Again, Perry is in a great spot nice and low in the zone. Now watch Darnell Nurse. He protects the slot area, but he is gone as soon as he sees the puck going to Perry. Perry sees the opportunity and gets it to Nurse for the exit.

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The Oilers’ exits last night were impressive in both their frequency and their creativity. They did it a lot and in many different ways. It kept the Stars off-balance all evening and allowed the Oilers to get on the attack faster than the Stars were ready.

The Cycle

Once the Oilers got the puck to the Stars’ blueline, I thought there was a genuine commitment to work the cycle with the goal of scoring, but also tiring the Stars’ defenders. Remember, the Stars have really only used four defencemen in the series. This plus the injury to Chris Tanev presented an opportunity for the Oilers to try and wear this group down. The Oilers did that very well. They maintained a strong rotation with the forward group always ensuring a good F3 position. When defencemen rotated down on the pinch, forwards were in good cover. Most importantly, when the Oilers were out of options, they didn’t try for hope passes across the seam. Instead, the puck went back low for another round of board battles. Here is a great clip of exactly this with the first line, which almost speaks for itself.
The only freeze frame is McDavid. Watch when he runs out of options. Instead of trying something with risk, the puck goes back low to start again. The rest of the clip is an excellent example of cycle play.

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Here is another one involving the third line of Henrique-Holloway-Kane. Again, watch how hard they work to get to the puck, the discipline of the F3, their finishing of checks, and their winning of puck battles.

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The cycle didn’t score any goals, but it was the first powerplay that scored. Ryan Suter spent most of the 1:09 shift defending his zone before he got frustrated and took a roughing penalty against McDavid. I also think the cycle took the legs from the Stars, which led to less dangerous attacks all night by them.
The entire body of work from defending to transitioning to offence to working in the offensive zone was working in harmony. It was a game that left me wondering how repeatable it is going forward. If it is, the Oilers may have found the secret sauce.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins

He was the best player for the Oilers last night. Two great powerplay goals for certain. However, what made him great was the little things. His penalty kill work again was sublime, but last night, it was his work at 5v5 that was a difference-maker. He was the defensive conscience of his line. A line that had an expected goal share of 83.5% on the evening. Here is some of the great work he did all night. Watch his read off McDavid attacking behind the net in this first clip. He is responsible for the seam play across the ice. He sits in the position perfectly and intercepts the pass. He then makes a very quick play to McDavid so he can attack.

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His second great play really helped the Oilers seal the deal. Watch him here in a good F3 position. He sees the puck is headed for Dallas’ possession, so he reverts to the middle of the ice to defend the stretch pass and the mid-lane outlet. The puck gets sent his way, and he knocks it down. This all happened in the last two and a half minutes when the Stars were trying to pull their goalie.

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Finally, here is another great example of Nugent-Hopkins’s effort level to get into proper defensive position. Watch this play down in the corner. He knows the puck is by him, so he doesn’t hesitate. Instead, he works hard back up the ice to mark his player. The puck comes in his direction. He makes a great knock-down play and feeds Bouchard. The puck heads the other direction for a chance on net.

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This was certainly Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s best playoff game in his Oilers career. He scored, he penalty-killed, he defended well, and he was brilliant this evening.

The Broberg Goal

Lest you thought you were done with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you were not. Remember the last clip? The one where he made the great defensive play that led to a quick attack by McDavid and Hyman resulting in a face-off in the Stars zone?
Well, that next face-off was this play here. What a great example of a complete face-off win. Holloway, Kane and Henrique all take their man freeing up Philip Broberg to get a shot to net. The result was his first playoff goal.

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Broberg played another good game. A little more wobble last night than in the prior game on his in-zone play, but he held the fort. After this goal, he looked more confident in joining the rush and carrying the puck. He’s going to be a fixture for the remainder of the playoffs.

Notes For Game Six

The Nurse-Kulak pairing survived another game. Although they had challenging moments, they were good overall. Nurse, in particular, was very effective in activating off his weak side and either leading or joining the attack. If this pairing can tread water, it will be a huge win.
The Broberg-Ceci pairing was also above average. They had some challenging moments in the first period, but once the second period came, the duo was very good in defending their zone and helping the puck exit. Broberg’s willingness to activate and carry the puck up ice was very helpful.
The Stars attack looked fatigued all night. They were still aggressive but didn’t seem to be able to create separation for odd-man rushes. Although the defence group looks quite tired, Kudos to Chris Tanev for his work last night. No question, Dallas will come with its best on Sunday. Whether that is enough is the big question.
That’s it for the Game 5 tactical wrap. See you all Monday morning.

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