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Edmonton Oilers vs. Florida Panthers: A Tactical Preview

Edmonton Oilers Florida Panthers
Photo credit:Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
10 days ago
From the standpoint of assessing who will win a particular playoff series, the Stanley Cup Final is almost always the most difficult series.
Most often you have teams who have played no more than twice per regular season for many years. It’s often unlikely those regular season games are later in the season to give someone an indication of where advantages may lay for each team. Additionally, the regular season games amongst two teams are mostly unhelpful in providing indications of playoff success due to roster changes that routinely occur at the deadline.
Yet, as we enter the Stanley Cup Finals, the overwhelming narrative is the Edmonton Oilers will struggle to beat the Florida Panthers. Currently, the betting odds have Florida as a solid favourite and the narrative from media types covering the NHL strongly favours the Panthers. So, the question is whether this confidence in Florida is fair or whether the Edmonton Oilers can overcome these odds and raise the Stanley Cup for a sixth time in their history.  To help try and find an answer, let’s take a look at the tactical set-up for the series along with the player deployment strategies each team may employ.

What Caught My Eye?

After watching a lot of Panthers hockey throughout the regular season and playoffs, the most overarching characterization I can make of Florida is aggressive. This doesn’t necessarily mean physical, although the team has a penchant for penalty troubles. More so, it means the Panthers attack teams all over the ice trying to overwhelm teams into making mistakes. When that happens, the Panthers have serious skill to turn those mistakes into scoring opportunities. At 5v5, the Panthers are second only to the Dallas Stars in the playoffs in scoring chances for, high-danger chances for and are leading the playoffs in shots for. They are also third in 5v5 scoring. So this is a team that can clearly make the most of opportunities. How do they do it? Let’s look at their work in each zone.

Panthers Offensive Zone

On the forecheck, the Panthers employ a relatively basic 1-2-2 forecheck. The forecheck is almost a hybrid in terms of attitude between the forwards and the defence. The forwards, with the exception of F1, are measured in their approach. F2 and F3 are read first and react second, emphasizing trying to stay above the puck. What makes the forward aspect of the forecheck so good is the interchangeability of the forwards amongst F1, F2 and F3 with an emphasis on trying to stay above the puck. Here is a great clip from the Boston series to show how effective the Panthers can be.
Boston retrieves the puck and really has three players to Florida’s one in a control position. However, watch the rotation by all three Florida players to take away lanes and also remain above the puck. The puck is turned over, and the Panthers are on offence with players in good positions to attack. Goal.

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This is a clinic. The Panthers had no business scoring on this play. The Bruins were not outmanned in this situation and had room to operate. However, the execution of this forecheck was perfect and it resulted in a goal.
This will be an area of emphasis for the Oilers for two reasons. The Oilers do not have the best group of defencemen at exiting the zone by passing or skating. Pressure tactics work on them and they can default to punting the puck out of the zone or worse. Here is a clip of a common play under pressure.
The defenceman doesn’t see the available mid-lane because of the pressure. Instead, he goes up the wall into the forecheck and the Canucks get a great scoring chance. This type of play needs to be minimized against Florida. The middle of the ice passing option needs to be an emphasis.

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The other part of the Panthers’ forecheck is the defensive group. They tend to be the aggressive part of the five-man unit and it’s typically without regard for the situation. This comes from a hard D1 pinch without adequate support and the result is often an odd-man break the other way if the Florida forwards are late to recover. Here is a clip of play that happens routinely with Florida defencemen.
The D1 here pinches down hard, ignoring the fact that he is facing three attackers. The Florida forwards are all underneath the puck, and F3 is in no position to support. Before D1 can recover, the Bruins isolate him with a pass into space behind him, and the Bruins are on the attack.

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This has to be an area the Oilers exploit in this series as Edmonton’s forward group has the ability to get out of the zone with pace. A lot of this comes from the Oilers maintaining a strong position low in their zone and then having the weakside winger stretching the zone as the puck comes up the wall. Here is a great example of what the Oilers did against the Stars with these aggressive pinch tactics.

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In addition, the Oilers have really become proficient at activating their defenceman on the weak side to help exiting. This also can have an impact on this aggressive posture of the Panthers’ defence. Back to the Canucks series, watch this play by Kulak. The Canucks are very aggressive here with both defencemen and the forwards are set-up well. Kulak sees the focus is on the puck carrier and races to fill a lane in the middle of the zone. The result is an exit.

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To me, this is the quintessential battle in this series: Florida’s offensive zone forecheck against the Oilers’ ability to exit the zone. If the Oilers fail, there will be many sequences like the one below that lead to trouble. The reason for that is because as good as the Florida forecheck is, there offensive attack is even better. The clip starts again with a fairly benign Florida forecheck.
However, Tkachuk (F2) makes a great read and seals the wall gaining possession of the puck. Now look at the Panthers’ perfect set-up with two players (F2 and F3) in nice attack spots. The rest of the clip is simply a text book example of two elements to great offensive zone attacking: constant F3 in the middle of the zone and good switching by forwards covering for pinching defenceman and for fellow forwards changing roles.

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The Oilers will have serious struggles if they allow this type of work to go on in their zone. While the Oilers’ defensive zone held up well against Dallas, extended plays in their zone like this one will wear this defensive group down over the course of the series.

Neutral Zone Forecheck is the same as the Offensive Zone Forecheck

In terms of neutral zone, the Panthers employ the same type of forecheck the Oilers have seen from both the Canucks and the Stars in prior rounds. It is a 1-2-2 where F1 drives the play to one side. F2 closes down the wall and D1 steps up to seal in behind. F3 protects the lane in the middle for cross-ice passes. D2 holds in a safety valve position. What makes the Florida neutral zone more interesting is again, wait for it, it’s aggression. Here is a clip that is a little less text book.
It starts with the Rangers having a chance to outlet to the flanks but instead decides to go the middle of the ice likely because of the pressure of F2. The Florida F3 makes a play on the puck to create a transition situation. Now watch what he does. There is zero hesitation. He is on the attack instantly and it creates a quick strike chance that leads to a goal.

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Now that aggression can lead to opportunities against as well. Here is another quick neutral zone play.
The Panthers punt the zone and immediately set up in a neutral zone check. The Rangers try to counter, and the Panthers are in good shape. F3 is moving back up the ice to take away the high Ranger forward. D1 and D2 are in good spots to mark their players. However, watch D2. He immediately gravitates to the puck, leaving the middle of the ice open. The F3 is not in a position to cover the middle, and now chaos ensues.

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Again, the Panthers D2 could have taken a more conservative tact here, but he went full tilt at the puck adding to the issues for the Panthers on this play.
Here is one final one.
Here the D1 steps up to seal a play, but he fails and the puck gets to the far side. Ekblad, instead of holding his position, attacks the puck carrier. There is little doubt he can see the Rangers players to his weak side. Still, he attacks a player better left for the Florida forward who is back with him. The forward realizes too late that there is a weak side option and it results in a goal against.

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Again, this is an area the Oilers need to counter. Their ability to activate off the weak side and create some cross-ice passing lanes could bear fruit. Remember this play by Cody Ceci against Dallas.

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There will be chances to create these types of plays and perhaps even better ones given the aggressive stance the Panthers defence take on their neutral zone forecheck.

Defensive Zone Structure

As with both of the other zones, the Florida defensive zone is aggressive. It attempts to be a combination of the box plus one down low and man-to-man up top commonly referred to as the hybrid defensive zone. However, the Florida group tends to swarm to the puck even down low, especially when it is on the walls. Here is an example.
The play starts along the wall and look how many Panthers are within a stick length of the puck. The Ranger out front is actually being marked by a Panther forward. The Panthers win the puck and try to clear but fail. Immediately, they attack the puck man-on-man and then when the puck gets swung to the weak side, they settle into a bit more of a passive structure. That works only for a short period of time because the Panthers defenseman, instead of holding his net front spot, chases a forward on the backside of the net. When the Rangers get the puck into the middle of the ice, the Panthers all race to the puck leaving the backside of the net available.

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Here is another example of the Panthers’ defensive structure. Again, watch the aggressive nature. The first part has all three low Panthers above a Rangers player and the puck is dumped deep by the Rangers and now they have possession. Again, the Panthers are in a good spot now having recovered.
F1 is headed to the puck and D1 and D2 are net front. Now watch D1 and what he does. He attacks the puck. F1 is still on the puck as well. D2 is left marking his man in front, but now the entire slot is open. The Rangers fill it and a goal against is the result.

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Finally, there is one clip to show this can also happen off the face-off. Watch the D2 on this play after the face-off loss. He moves to the wall instead of holding the net front. The center then decides to mark his player up ice leaving the entire net front open to attack.

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This does not mean the Panthers are not effective in their zone. According to Natural Stat Trick, they have given up the second fewest scoring changes against per 60 in the playoffs. To nobody’s surprise, they are aggressive off the transition in the defensive zone, which can lead to scoring chances. Watch this clip.
In this case, the puck starts low, and the Panthers are in a nice position with four players under the puck defending. When the puck gets swung up top, the Panthers go man to man and attack the puck. The shot attempt doesn’t get through, and now the Panthers are on the attack.

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This is a play that will be crucial to the Edmonton Oilers success. This defence group is not particularly successful getting pucks through and making plays quickly that get down low again will be the key.
The Oilers will also need to maintain a strong F3 in the offensive zone because on turnovers low, the Panthers will activate from the defence group. Watch this play by Gustav Forsling.

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What Does It All Mean Tactically?

The key battles in this series will revolve around the Oilers defenders ability to handle pressure. Most of that will be in their zone, but also some of it in the offensive zone. The Oilers can manage the situation by consistently having a low forward in their zone and a high forward in the Panthers’ zone. This will give the Oilers defence options when trying to exit or when trying to make plays in the offensive zone.
The Panthers will be aggressive in all three zones. Some of that is by design to overwhelm opponents, some of it is rote learning that can cause the Panthers to be susceptible to counter attacks of a high-danger nature. It should be noted that while the Panthers gave up the second least amount of scoring chances per 60, they were only middle of the pack in high-danger scoring chances against according to Natural Stat Trick. Translation: they don’t make a lot of mistakes, but when they do, they are whoppers!

The Match-Up Game

The easiest part to predict at the outset is the McDavid line will see a healthy dose of the Barkov line plus Ekblad and Forsling on defence. There is a lot of discussion that Barkov can shut down McDavid, however, I am not quite certain of this situation because of the emergence of Evan Bouchard. Bouchard’s play at 5v5 has been a revelation this playoffs. McDavid’s expected goal share is 62 percent with Bouchard and 38 percent without. Bouchard’s ability to transition pucks to McDavid or his linemates and out of trouble has been exceptional. This will make it very challenging on the Barkov line.
The second easiest prediction is the Florida second line of Bennett-Tkachuk-Rodrigues will get the Draisaitl line. The Oilers made an interesting line-up change at practice that makes me think they are preparing for this situation. Kris Knoblauch and his coaching staff reunited Dylan Holloway with Leon Draisaitl and Evander Kane, with Warren Foegle skating as a placeholder for the latter of the three. I think this move is designed to provide the Draisaitl line more speed and physicality to counter Bennett and Tkachuk. Everyone knows the story of how Kane took Tkachuk out of the Calgary series two years ago. However, that was two years ago and Kane is certainly not 100 percent healthy. Holloway will give the line more support in terms of the forecheck, but also winning wall battles to exit the zone. He has been excellent at both in the playoffs. This will take some load off Kane.
Another reason I think Holloway may stay on this second line is because of the Panthers’ third line. There is a lot of celebration around this line and I can see why. Anton Lundell is an excellent player. Eetu Luostarinen has really turned into a sold middle six forward. Tarasenko and his offensive prowess are already well known. However, this is a slower line in terms of pace. As such, I can see the thinking about why the Oilers are contemplating two bottom six lines that are composed of McLeod-Carrick-Perry and Janmark-Henrique-Brown. Each line has speed, physicality and defensive acumen. I am not sure what line would take on this third line, but either should be able to match-up well. The other important part is that one of these lines is going to get an unfavourable match-up in Florida against one of the top two lines. This group has a better balance in being able to withstand the capability of those lines.
The most glaring issue for the Oilers will not be goaltending but the pairing of Darnell Nurse and Brett Kulak. The duo bent heavily but did not break against Dallas, but Florida will be a severe challenge for all of the reasons outlined above. This duo’s ability to get the puck out of the zone quickly will play a major part in who wins this series.
The corollary to this is that young Philip Broberg could play a pivotal role in this series with his ability to both pass and skate the puck out of the zone. He will be challenged in-zone on his defending, however, the team will need him to do some heavy lifting on moving the puck up ice in a third pairing role with Cody Ceci.
Finally, I think the Oilers need to attack the Panthers’ defence. Gustav Forsling is a splendid player. No question there. However, the quick Edmonton forwards need to challenge Aaron Ekblad’s pace and transition skating. The second pairing of Brandon Montour and Niko Mikkola needs to be put to the test as well. Montour can be dangerous because he is the very definition of a “rover” on defence. His freelancing can lead to transition opportunities from the Panthers’ zone. However, that can work against him as he can lose his positional responsibility and leave time and space to opposing players. Watch this clip here of him operating in the net front.
It begins with a very typical aggressive defensive zone up top by the Panthers. Once the puck is dumped down low, follow Montour (#62) in his play. He loses his area of responsibility because he wants to get engaged in the play. It gives the Bruins player a nice area to operate in with some time because the other Panther defenceman is racing to cover the net front. The result is a very dangerous chance leading to a goal on a play where the Bruins’ player had two options.

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This pairing will receive a heavy dose of the Draisaitl line and likely some McDavid minutes when in Edmonton. The Oilers need to test this tandem in the cycle game in the zone.

The Final Verdict

There are some challenges for the Oilers against the Panthers that are steeper than any other series. However, I can confidently say that statement applies equally to the Panthers. In my view, the Oilers are a deeper team both at forward and defence. Make no mistake, it is close, but I give the edge to Edmonton. The specialty teams are close as well, but the Oilers certainly have a modest advantage on the power play. The goaltending edge goes to the Panthers, but I am not certain it isn’t closer than many think.
In the end, the Oilers for my money, have played the tougher competition and did so playing systems Florida will bring. Are those systems better executed by Florida? In some ways, yes but in others, Florida can be exposed. For me, I think it all adds up to the Edmonton Oilers having a strong chance to win the Stanley Cup.
A much stronger one than most people believe is the case.

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