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Five key coaching moves by Oilers’ Kris Knoblauch that contributed to series win over the Canucks

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Sean Panganiban
30 days ago
Back in November, Kris Knoblauch, who was best known as Connor McDavid’s former junior coach, was hired to coach the Edmonton Oilers, who were near the bottom of the standings at the time. Who could have imagined, at that low point, that six months later, he would guide Edmonton to the Western Conference Final?
That said, the Oilers’ head coach made many intelligent choices and crucial adjustments that helped clinch the second-round series win over the Vancouver Canucks, and below are five critical coaching decisions that stood out above the rest.

Knoblauch’s Management of Skinner & Pickard Was on Point

Stuart Skinner faced difficulties, managing only a .880 save percentage, in his first-ever playoff run last year, and perhaps a downfall of former Oilers’ head coach Jay Woodcroft is that he continued to start him even though he was struggling. Consequently, Edmonton was beaten by the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round in six games.
Maybe Knoblauch learnt from Woodcroft’s misstep and he took a big gamble in the series versus the Canucks, when Skinner let in 12 goals in the first three games. As a result, the coach put his trust in 32-year-old backup Calvin Pickard to start Game 4, and the netminder stopped 19 of 21 shots as the Oilers clinched a 3-2 victory due to a late game-winner by Evan Bouchard. Knoblauch went with Pickard again in Game 5, and he was solid, giving them a puncher’s chance in the 3-2 defeat.
Before Game 6, there was a feeling from Oil Country, including this writer, that the Oilers should start Pickard once more, but again Knoblauch’s decision paid off. He reverted to his number one netminder in Skinner for Games 6 and 7, and the sophomore bounced back, as he’s previously done, posting a combined 1.50 GAA in both games.
Overall, hats off to Knoblauch for making the gutsy goalie moves he made, which paid off. Looking ahead to the series against the Dallas Stars, it’s comforting to know that Pickard can step in and potentially provide reliable goaltending in case Skinner encounters difficulties once more.

Holloway Was Given a Chance to Prove Himself in Oilers’ Top Six

Dylan Holloway worked his way up in almost a month and a half from the AHL to the Oilers’ fourth line, where he scored two big goals against the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round. He then stepped up as a key player on the second line, and it seems he’s emerging as the final piece to completing a dangerous Oilers’ top six. Credit goes to Knoblauch for giving him that opportunity.
Holloway scored a highlight reel goal against the Canucks in Game 6 and earned an assist on the opening Cody Ceci goal in Game 7. He’s showing much more patience with the puck and making excellent defensive plays, and the chemistry between him and Leon Draisaitl is increasing. This was evident when Holloway nearly buried a one-timer off a feed by his centerman, off the rush, in the second period of Game 7.
Ultimately, Holloway’s confidence is growing, and a part of that is likely due to the confidence that his coach has shown in him. Suppose the line heavy of Draisaitl, Holloway and Evander Kane continue to gel. In that case, their blend of physicality and scoring ability will make them a handful in the upcoming series against the Stars.

Replacing Corey Perry for Sam Carrick in the Lineup

Corey Perry will likely end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday. While he was effective for the Oilers down the playoff stretch, the speed and intensity of postseason play have increased, making the 39-year-old look a step behind.
Knoblauch made a tough decision to sit the former Hart Trophy winner, who had gone pointless in ten postseason games. Instead, he put in Sam Carrick, who hadn’t played since Game 3 of the opening round to center the fourth line for Game 6 against the Canucks. The Oilers’ centerman delivered—he drew a penalty, dished out seven hits and went 7/12 in the faceoff circle.
Carrick was also very effective in the series’ final game, winning 50% of his faceoffs, throwing three hits, and was part of a sustained offensive zone pressure that eventually led to Edmonton’s second goal of the night.
That said, while Carrick’s physicality will be valuable against the Stars, it’ll be interesting to see if Knoblauch gives Perry a chance to play a game or two in the next round, especially considering his experience playing with Dallas when they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 2020. Perry scored the game-winner in double overtime in Game 5 of that series.

Knoblauch’s Timely Time Out in Game 7

The Oilers were leading 3-0 in Game 7, but the Canucks made things interesting by scoring two goals just a few minutes apart, narrowing the score to 3-2 with only a few minutes left in the third period. This energized the hometown crowd.
Once again, credit to Knoblauch for his quick thinking at that moment, calling a timeout to help settle down his bench. In contrast, previous Oilers’ coaches have often refrained from using timeouts, seemingly saving them as if they could be exchanged for banked vacation days.
That said, Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli summarized the coach’s move:
“The Oilers nearly folded, they nearly crumbled…It was a timely timeout by Kris Knoblauch, and then at the next television timeout, it was Darnell Nurse huddling the team around to send a message to the group to stay on their toes and continue to be aggressive. Aggressive what the Oilers were from puck drop. That’s a testament to this Edmonton team where a lot of weird things have happened to them this series.”
Knoblauch called a timeout, gathered his players, and calmed down the bench to shift their mindset away from the ‘not this again’ feeling. After that, the Oilers put on a defensive masterclass, not allowing the Canucks to register a shot on net in the remaining 4:36 of the game.

Oilers Benefited From Knoblauch’s Defensive Pairings Switch

Back in February, after the Oilers’ impressive winning streak that saw them win all their games in January, the head coach tinkered with his defensive pairings. He elevated Vincent Desharnais to play with Darnell Nurse and, over a string of games, eventually dropped Cody Ceci to the third pair to play with Brett Kulak.
At the time, it was a peculiar decision as the Oilers had just rattled off 11 wins in a row, but now, three months later, the move has paid off, and the intention behind it is now crystal clear—he wanted to ensure his defencemen felt comfortable playing together if things went south in the postseason, which is what happened with the Nurse-Ceci pairing.
The Nurse-Ceci pairing, which many feel is the Oilers’ Achilles Heel, was on the ice for a combined 5 GA and only 1 GF in the first three games against the Canucks. As a result, in Game 4, Knoblauch reverted to his previous pairings of Nurse-Desharnais and Ceci-Kulak. He stuck with these pairings for the rest of the series, which proved effective, as Edmonton is on its way to the next round.
The Ceci-Kulak duo logged 51:38 minutes together at 5v5. Despite their less-than-impressive underlying metrics (27% SCF, 35% HDCF, 32.75% xGF), they were on the ice for two goals for, which included a Ceci bomb in Game 7 and gave up none at even strength.
The Nurse-Desharnais combo played 47:49 minutes together at 5v5 against the Canucks. In contrast to the Ceci-Kulak duo, their underlying metrics at even strength were notably stronger, with a 54.55% SCF, 61.11% HDCF, and 57.11% xGF according to Natural Stat Trick.
Had Knoblauch stuck with the Nurse-Ceci pairing, which was leaking goals against, we might be looking at a different series outcome today. Nonetheless, all in all, the head coach made some great decisions against the Canucks, and it’ll be intriguing to see what moves he makes against the Stars. With that in mind, what caught your attention the most among Knoblauch’s coaching decisions?

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