Edmonton Oilers vs. Florida Panthers Game 4: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
1 month ago
After Game 3, I wrote a lot about the Edmonton Oilers being out of gas and that the Florida Panthers had not changed anything tactically.
The Oilers, in particular their defence, couldn’t handle the aggressive scheme coming at them. No question Sergei Bobrovsky stole them Game 1 of the series. However, Games 2 and 3 looked like the Oilers just didn’t have the ability to match the Panthers’ energy.
On Saturday night, in the first do-or-die game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Edmonton Oilers found something in the reserve tanks. Their play was crisper all over the ice and they handled the Panthers’ aggressive play very well. Combine that with Sergei Bobrovsky coming back to earth for one night and the Oilers were able to get their first Stanley Cup Final win in 18 years.
Let’s see how it all came together.

What Caught My Eye?

As I noted above and through the series, the Florida Panthers have come as advertised. They haven’t changed anything tactically in how they wanted to attack this series. They have been very aggressive and it has had an impact on the Oilers, especially the defence. For one night though, the Oilers, as a group, were able to put together a game that took advantage of the aggressive play and then capitalized on scoring chances that came out of those plays.

It All Starts in The Defensive Zone

This entire series has been a bet by Florida that the Oilers defence would not be able to withstand their forecheck and the result would be failed exit after failed exit leading to Panther chances. Games 2 and 3 were good examples of this bet. For most of Game 4, the Oilers defensively were able to handle the pressure well and it led to the floodgates opening on the scoresheet. Let’s take a look at the second goal of the night.
The puck is dumped in by the Panthers and Mattias Janmark immediately swings, going to the far blueline on the weak side of the ice. Now watch the next freeze frame where Mattias Ekholm surveys the ice. He clearly takes a look to see the forecheck set-up. Ekholm doesn’t do anything spectacular here other than make a great rim pass up the wall to Janmark. The Panthers actually do a nice job recovering, but it was the fact, that the Oiler defence moved the puck up the ice quickly to players in position that made this effective. No failed exit. No extended time in zone defending. From here, Anton Lundell just does an atrocious job taking his check and Adam Henrique makes him pay.

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Goal #3 was no different except it was a forward making the critical play.
Here Mattias Janmark has two options. He could push the puck backwards or he can go across the ice switching sides with the puck. Before the series, we talked about how switching sides could be very effective against the hard-charging Panthers. Janmark swings the puck across to Kulak and now look at all the free ice available. In addition, Aaron Ekblad loses his position on Leon Draisaitl. This leaves Kulak with a great passing lane which he takes. Draisaitl makes a wonderful play gathering the puck and then making a perfect pass to Dylan Holloway in full flight.

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Again, this all starts with assertive moves by the Oilers in their defensive zone to move the puck up the ice. Switching sides, which is not something the Oilers have done a lot of since game one, proved very effective here.
The fourth Oiler goal all starts deep in their zone. Stuart Skinner makes an outlet. Look at the first freeze frame. Warren Foegele is on the wall ready to make a play. However, Connor McDavid is nice and low to help support the puck either as an outlet option in the middle of the ice or to assist in defending. In the meantime, Evan Bouchard recognizes the Oilers are in a good position and he activates off the weak side. The puck is sent again across the ice to Bouchard. Kudos to Warren Foegele for being able to make the play. As soon as the puck gets to the weak side, the Panthers are in deep trouble. They have four players low and Connor McDavid is in full flight up the ice. Zach Hyman sees McDavid wide open in the middle and makes the pass.

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Finally, let’s take a look at one more goal in a longer sequence to illustrate how the Oilers exited the zone most of the night. The fifth goal actually has two very good exits in the sequence. The first is off a recovery by Mattias Ekholm. The Oilers forward group is really set up well. Dylan Holloway is stretching the zone, which is a traditional play for most teams. However, Ekholm also has Draisaitl in a nice low position and Nugent-Hopkins on his strong side available. Ekholm makes the stretch play successfully. The Oilers cannot hold the zone, but watch on the ensuing dump-in by the Panthers. Philip Broberg takes a quick scan up the ice and sees his entire side is open. He makes a quick read and sends the puck up the wall to Zach Hyman.
Once again, the Oilers have Connor McDavid in the middle of the ice with time and space. Hyman gets it to McDavid. McDavid’s pace is so quick, it forces the Panthers’ defence to back off allowing the activating defender, Darnell Nurse, to step into the slot. He rips a great shot and that is the end of the night for Sergei Bobrovsky.

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There is no doubt, many of you are looking at these plays and saying there isn’t anything complicated here. That is true. The Panthers are trying to overwhelm the Oilers with their speed and tenacity on the check. They aren’t the L.A. Kings who are trying to turn every game into a chess match on zone exits.
What the Oilers did well in Game 4 was get their forwards into good positions to exit. In particular, there was an Oiler forward low in the zone all night. The defenceman mostly didn’t wait around but made a read before the puck got to them and then executed the play. This led to breakouts that were clean, but, more importantly, it meant less time defending in-zone and more time attacking the offensive zone.

Offensive Zone Support

When the Oilers were in the offensive zone, I thought they were much better at supporting the play from low to high. After Game 2, there was a lot of hand-wringing about the number of shots the Oiler defencemen were taking. I thought that was an unfair attack on the defencemen because I didn’t see any forward support to give them other options. With the Panthers charging hard at the points, it led to shots.
Last night, the Oilers defencemen only had eight of the 21 shots at 5v5. That is about their season average and, for those who have followed me all year know, this is a good balance of shots from the defence. What did the offensive support look like? Let’s take a look at one play by Ryan McLeod. McLeod and his linemates are working the cycle down low in the first part of the clip. McLeod gets a shot away and then recovers the puck. Now watch what happens.
He goes low to high with the puck, but follows it up the ice to give his defenceman a passing option. This is very smart hockey. Three Florida Panthers attack Philip Broberg who makes a nice play to control the puck with his skate and get it back to McLeod. The Panthers’ aggression leaves the middle of the ice wide open. McLeod finds Derek Ryan in a great attack spot.

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McLeod wasn’t the only Oiler forward to do this tonight. It was a consistent theme across all the lines. This type of offensive zone support will pay dividends should it continue.

Connor McDavid

Yes, we have all heard about the four-point night and the record he set for most assists in the playoffs. His offensive prowess gets a lot of run by sports media, as it should, but I thought McDavid showed what makes him truly special last night: his 200-foot game.
We have already noted in two videos above how he was very responsible in his own zone, leading to chances. Well, he did that all night. Here is a great little play to illustrate his defensive conscience.
Off a face-off loss, McDavid hustles to get back above the puck in a great F3 position. Now he is in a great support spot for his defencemen. The Panthers try to go up the wall and McDavid interrupts the play and it is turned over to the Oilers. Mattias Ekholm seeing that McDavid has turned the puck over and is also in a good support position takes the opportunity to step into a mid-lane attack. Once again, the aggressive play of the Panthers gets the best of them and Zach Hyman makes a great play to get Ekholm the puck in the middle of the ice with no defender on him.

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This all started with a little play by Connor McDavid off the face-off to support his defencemen high up in the zone.
McDavid also did it low in the zone as well. In this case, the Panthers have the forecheck on and the puck is pinned to the end boards. McDavid slides down to support the 2v2 battle. The puck comes loose. McDavid makes a great stick check to allow the puck to get to Dylan Holloway. Holloway makes a great outlet to Corey Perry. Oilers score on a great pass by McDavid.

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No question the pass by McDavid and the touch by Holloway will get a lot of the focus, but for me this was all McDavid deep in his zone making a great defensive play. Something he does frequently and gets credit for it far less than he should.

Notes For Game 5

The Oilers powerplay did manage to score in Game 4, but it remains a struggle. One of the suggestions I have put out is for them to run the bumper play. The Panthers are very aggressive on the puck when it goes up high and to the walls. It tends to leave the middle of the ice open. However. the Oilers do not really run a bumper play. Their traditional set-up is having players on the perimeter looking for 2v1 isolation plays off the wings or the Bouchard slapper from up top. Last night there was a hint of how effective the bumper could be if the Oilers wanted to try it. It came off a powerplay faceoff with Leon Draisaitl. Twice in this clip, Draisaitl stays in the middle of the ice in a lower bumper position. On the first, you can see he is in the lane for a pass. McDavid elects to feed Bouchard, but Draisaitl is available. The second time, McDavid gets it to Draisaitl for the shot.

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Both times, this area was open. I wonder if we see this play mixed in a little more in game five to take advantage of the hole in the middle of the Panthers’ penalty kill.
The pairing of Kulak-Ceci will need to be watched. Philip Broberg and Darnell Nurse still had some challenges but managed the play better in their second game as a pairing. Kulak clearly struggles with Ceci as a partner. No doubt the Panthers will try to attack this pairing.
The line of Draisaitl-Nugent-Hopkins and Holloway also had challenges. I am not sure about this line because of its defensive acumen and the injury to Draisaitl. It survived tonight, but there was a wobble. One suggestion would be to staple a defensive pairing to them that is not Kulak and Ceci. The line struggled with them. When they played with any other pairing, they did tread water well.
The Henrique line was brilliant tonight. The line isn’t fast, but each player is a very good puck protector and not easily knocked off the play. This line can have continued success against Florida. Needs to stay together.
The penalty kill tandem of Janmark and Brown might have just sealed contract renewals with their play in Game 4. Incredible work by each player with a crucial opening goal as well.
The two days off should help the Oilers here. Clearly, the team is banged up and was looking tired. Does the extra day help them on both fronts? Does the additional travel impact Florida, who is used to shorter travel? We will see on Tuesday.
That’s it for the tactical review of Game 4.
Happy Fathers’ Day to all the Dads out there. Happy Father’s Day to my Dad, who gave me a great gift when he introduced me to hockey. He started my passion for the game. I am grateful for that and his love and support throughout my life. See everyone on Wednesday morning.

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