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Edmonton Oilers vs. Vancouver Canucks Game 4: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Dylan Holloway
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
1 month ago
The build-up to Game 4 of the Oilers-Canucks series had all manner of intrigue. The Oilers were contemplating a change in goal and also a potential rework of the blue line. Would McDavid and Draisaitl play apart? How would the Canucks replace Carson Soucy, who was suspended for the game? Would the Canucks make any other changes to their line-up coming off the Game 3 victory?
Ultimately, the scoreboard and the statistics showed it to be similar to the first three games. Relatively tight-checking, low-chance hockey that was one in close fashion. This time, it was the Edmonton Oilers. However, a few tactical developments emerged from Game 4 that might play a role in the remainder of the series.
So without further adieu, let’s go to the tape…er…video.

What Caught My Eye?

Do The Oilers Have A Top Six?

Last night saw the splitting up of Draisaitl and McDavid as I had hoped for coming out of game three. The interesting part was Dylan Holloway getting moved onto the line with Evander Kane instead of some combination involving Kane, Foegele and Perry. The line was hard-matched against the J.T. Miller line most of the night and was very good. Holloway provided an element of speed on the line, allowing for a better offensive zone forecheck and Kane was very strong on the forecheck as well. I thought this allowed more space for Draisaitl, the best player on the ice in tonight’s game. Look at this clip as an example of the work of the three together.
Watch Holloway on the entry and retrieval. Then, watch all three work hard on a cycle game that led to a very good scoring chance.

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The line pushed the river all night holding a steady advantage over the opposition with an expected goal share of 58 percent while Holloway and Kane individually were both over 70 percent expected goal share. The line suffered some adversity when they were scored on with just over a minute left on a very fluky play. However, it should be noted that the line remained on the ice for the face-off and stayed intact.
In a prior time, Holloway and/or Kane might have been pulled for the nuclear option. Instead, they remained together and contributed to the game-winning goal. The clip of this goal is full of instructive parts.
It starts with Dylan Holloway not taking the puck backwards in the neutral zone, but instead lobbing a puck into the zone on the quick. It is then followed up with a tremendous forecheck by Evander Kane who finishes his check and creates a loose puck. Holloway’s speed and strength force a quick play by Vancouver that ends up coming to Mattias Ekholm, who does a great job holding the line. The next key piece to watch is Holloway on the net front. Instead of sitting out front allowing Zadorov to effectively block the lane to him and guard Draisaitl, he floats out wider. Watch Zadorov get pulled away from the net just for a second, creating a lane for Draisaitl, who makes a brilliant pass as Bouchard finishes the game.

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This can potentially be a very big turning point in the series. This line went head-to-head with Vancouver’s top unit and controlled play. Dylan Holloway provided pace that helped the line on the forecheck. Evander Kane was a force on the forecheck. All of this leads to the question of what happens in Vancouver when the match-up changes. If Tocchet runs Miller against McDavid, he risks getting exposed because McDavid has played well against Miller. If Tocchet runs Miller against Draisaitl, we have Game 4’s result as a comp for what could happen. This balance allows the Oilers to counter the home-ice change advantage the Canucks will have in game five. That could be significant.

The Oilers Defensive Zone

The Oilers’ defensive zone work, which has been good all series, continued its run of good play. Last night, they limited Vancouver to three high-danger scoring chances. Three. That’s right three.
Whether the team wanted to protect their backup goalie or just dig in further, they were even better last night than the previous. Watch an example of the Draisaitl line here to see their work.
The five-man group maintains a really nice box, plus one all over the ice. When the puck floats up top, the Oilers pressure the puck. The only wobble is Holloway not reading off Draisaitl’s aggression and backing down into the slot to prevent the seam pass. Nevertheless, the group recovers and keeps the play to the outside and, without danger, eventually exiting the zone.

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The new development here is the goalie saved the shots he needed to save. If the Oilers get solid but unspectacular goaltending the rest of the way, their defensive structure may be a winning formula.

So Everything Is Perfect?

Not quite. The Oilers still have some opportunities for improvement. First, they must work to get better shots in the offensive zone. Last night, of the 24 shots at 5v5 taken by the Oilers, 13 came from defensemen. This led to the Oilers only having eight high-danger chances all game. While a couple of defencemen shots came from good spots — Bouchard’s goal as an example — the Oilers need to get this ratio of defensive shots down to about 35 percent. Watch this clip of the Vancouver defensive zone.
I highlight one instance where Connor McDavid could have worked up the ice a little to create a 2-3 offensive zone attack.

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The more options the Oilers can give their defencemen instead of shooting the puck, the better. This will lead to more high-danger chances against an inexperienced goalie. Again, more attacks using a 2-3 formation and more half-wall seams plays would help.
Another area where the Oilers can be better is on the exit. The Vancouver Canucks are selling out on the forecheck. Their F1 goes hard to the puck, and the F2 and F3 almost automatically go to each wall for the attempted rim play. The Canucks are daring the Oilers to use the middle of the ice to exit, but that has happened infrequently. It is an opportunity for the Oilers. Watch this clip as an example.

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To make matters even more complicated, the Canucks are pinching the strong-side defenceman automatically once in the zone. So again, going up the wall becomes a problem. Again, the middle of the ice or reverse to the weak side is available to the Oilers.

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In this last clip, watch what happens when the Oilers don’t force the play to the strong side wall. It starts with what became a habit last night of going up the wall and losing the puck. Then watch when Bouchard retrieves the loose puck the second time. The Vancouver strong-side defenceman steps up even though there is no play yet. This automatically causes his partner to have to back off to be the safety valve in case of a successful exit. Now Bouchard reverses back to Ekholm’s side. He recovers the puck and now see all the space that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid have to operate in.

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A more effective transition out of the zone will help the Oilers reduce offensive zone attacks for the Canucks even further.
One last one is the Oilers’ relative lack of attack instinct on the Canucks defence group on a transition play. The Oilers spend a lot of time regrouping and allowing the Canucks to set up their forecheck. One defenceman who does have a strong instinct is Mattias Ekholm. Last night, he singlehandedly created the second goal by deciding the turn the puck back up the ice instead of regrouping. Watch him catch the Vancouver defenceman by surprise and also the weakside winger. He takes a big hit but makes a tremendous play to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who finishes with a great shot.

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The Oilers need to exploit this area more. Vancouver does not have fleets of foot defensive groups, and it can be counter-attacked quickly.

Notes Going Into Game 5

I thought it was notable that Derek Ryan’s unit took two shifts against the J.T. Miller line coming out of whistle stops. Coach Knoblauch had options and chose this group. The results were not especially pretty, but no damage was done. Again, I think that takes a lot of courage by the head coach, but that does send a message to those players.
The reworked defensive pairs held ok. The Nurse-Desharnais pairing was exposed a little on their ability to pass the puck up the ice quickly, but held well in their own zone overall. Despite Nurse having the lowest 5v5 minutes, I do not believe this was intentional. The Kulak-Ceci pairing had a great deal of trouble getting out of their zone and played extended shifts on several occasions, leading to bigger minute totals. Again, there might be discussions about whether Ceci needs to be sat down for Stetcher or for Broberg, who played with Kulak a lot at the beginning of the season.
Oh, and I am starting Calvin Pickard.
That’s it for the Game 4 tactical review. See you all on Friday after Game 5.

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