Edmonton Oilers vs. Vancouver Canucks Game 7: A Tactical Review

Edmonton Oilers Ryan McLeod Cody Ceci
Photo credit:Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
1 month ago
In the end, the Edmonton Oilers simply wore out the Vancouver Canucks.
There is no question that the injury to Brock Boeser played a massive role in Game 7. However, it was clear within the first 10 minutes of the game that the Canucks didn’t have any answers for the Oilers. Edmonton was going to control this game and likely win it, but for a bad bounce or a return to bad form.
While there was a wobble late in the game, the Oilers held steady. Indeed, for about 116 of the last 120 minutes of this series, the Edmonton Oilers played championship-calibre hockey — composed, structured, lethal on offence when available, and suffocating on defence when required. Before the Oilers roll into “Big D” to play the Stanley Cup semi-finals, let’s have one last look at the tactical play of this series.

What Caught My Eye?

Breaking Out Isn’t Hard To Do

One of the recurring themes of the series was the on-again, off-again Vancouver forecheck. In the middle part of the series, the Canucks brought the forecheck hard to the Oilers defence. For good portions of Game 4 and 5, it worked very well. However, the Oilers made adjustments to their breakout, which literally changed the zone play dynamic in the series.
The Oilers invested heavily in having the center (or sometimes a winger) low and supporting a defenceman trying to move the puck up the ice. In addition, the Oilers also ran the weakside defenceman up the ice to allow for cross-ice passes to exit. Both tactics were on full display last night. Here are a couple of examples.
In the first one, we see the Oilers recovering a shot attempt low. Draisaitl, who was the low forward playing the weakside, rotates out to acquire the puck. Evander Kane goes hard to the wall for an outlet as Holloway also moves up the ice hard into the mid-lane to support the two. The key player is Cody Ceci. Watch him scan the situation and immediately take off up the ice. More importantly, look how hard it is for the Vancouver forwards to backtrack. The puck goes to Kane, who makes a great read and sends it to cross-ice to the more dangerous Oiler positionally, which is Ceci.

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This happened all night long. Here is another one with much more chaos involving it.
Here, we have Brett Kulak retreat for a retrieval and the puck gets up the wall to Connor Brown. He does a very nice job turning on the wall with the puck and heads up ice. Sam Carrick is in a nice position underneath the puck, while Mattias Janmark comes and fills the middle lane for support. Again, more importantly, the weakside defenceman in Kulak activates hard up the ice. Now look at all of the Canucks on the strong side of the ice. The middle lane of the ice is wide open for an attack. Except for a great play by the Canucks back checker, Brett Kulak likely gets a clean look. As it is, the Oilers get down the ice and have a reasonable chance on the net. All around, another great breakout play.

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Even on the first goal against the Oilers, they had done a great job moving the puck up ice. Watch this clip of the play.
McLeod works himself into a good spot. The Vancouver forecheck is late and slow giving Desharnais a clean look to get the puck to McLeod in space in the middle of the ice. 99 times out of 100, this is a clean break-out, and this happened to be the one time it wasn’t. For Ryan McLeod, it resulted in him sitting on the bench late in this game. While McLeod was good most of this series defensively, if you aren’t scoring, you must be perfect. He wasn’t even when he should have been.

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After the game, there was a lot of discussion the Canucks ran out of gas. I agree with that idea, but I think the Oilers had much to do with it. One very important component of that was the dramatic improvement in exit tactics by the Oilers.
The Canucks forwards were chasing the play most of the last two games on the forecheck. The defence was constantly being turned onto their heels and defending back up the ice and in their zone. No question the Oilers contributed to the fatigue of the Canucks with this one tactic.

How Come Nobody Talks About Our Defending?

All of us could be excused for focusing on the Oilers’ offence.
To have the greatest player in a generation, another one who is widely considered the second-best offensive player in the game, and a defenceman who is also elite offensively all on the one team is distracting. All of the focus goes on them.
But the sneaky part of the game for the Oilers was their defending. During the regular season, the Oilers were sixth-best at both preventing shots and high-danger chances. They did this all while leading the league in shots and high-danger chances at 5v5, too. There is no question that some of this defensive work was because of their offensive capability, however, a strong contributing factor was their ability to defend. That element to their game did not change in the playoffs or in Game 7.
Indeed, the Edmonton Oilers were suffocating for over 50 minutes of this game. The Canucks had a grand total of 13 shots at 5v5. The commitment from the Oilers to defence was obvious from the early stages of the game. Watch this clip of Connor McDavid off a face-off loss.
He starts to head on the forecheck, but his responsibility is the center, J.T. Miller, who is heading up ice. McDavid sees this and immediately reverts back up ice into his position on the 1-2-2 forecheck. No risk was taken when none was necessary. Then when the puck comes up the wall, watch his effort level to maintain a good F3 all the way back to where he intercepts the puck and sends it to his defence for a regroup.

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The Oilers were particularly good on in-zone defending in this game. While Canucks had a decent amount of offensive zone time, they rarely had good looks from strong positions. Watch this clip of the Draisaitl line work. Their constant focus on getting into a strong box plus one was evident the whole shift. Anything they did give up was from a distance. When needed, the forwards got into shooting lanes and blocked pucks.

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Here is another small clip of the top line also defending. It’s not quite as clean, with the box plus one breaking down a bit (don’t cheat Connor). However, when it got there, Nugent-Hopkins, who was the Oilers’ best player last night, made a great play to take away the shot lane.

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This happened time and time again.
Remember folks, the other team is good and is going to get their looks. The best teams in this league only possess the puck 55 percent of the time, which means someone else has it almost as much. What you do when you don’t have the puck is just as important as what you do when you have it.

Notes From Game 7

  • The Oilers penalty kill was sublime in Game 7, killing off all of the penalties against including a key four-minute Canucks power play late in the first period. In doing so, the Oilers gave up two shots on net. Led by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Vinny Desharnais, they were suffocating all night when short-handed.
  • I picked on Ryan McLeod and rightfully so. However, he was part of a very pretty face-off play that led to the Oilers’ first goal. We start with McLeod on his strong side in the offensive zone. This is a pretty standard face-off play called a bracket play. The inside winger dives underneath to retrieve the puck on a loss and the outside winger comes over top to recover a face-off win. The center marks his counterpart in the dot. If the face-off is lost, the inside winger becomes F1, and the center and the outside winger can easily set up into F2 and F3. In this case, Mcleod saws off Miller on the face-off, and Holloway beats his man to the puck, making a great tap-back pass to Brett Kulak. Kulak goes D to D, and the sniper, Cody Ceci, puts it home. This is the reason teams work on set plays off the face-off.

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  • I saw some consternation still about the Oilers’ depth scoring at the end of the series. However, of the seven goals scored at even strength in the last two games, Dylan Holloway, Brett Kulak, Cody Ceci, and Evander Kane all contributed. This is to say nothing of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who was spectacular, registering five points in the critical final two games. Can they use more from the third line? Yes, they can. However, it is unfair to say the secondary scoring wasn’t there when it was needed.
That’s it for the Game 7 report. See you back here in the next day or so with a preview of the Dallas Stars series.

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