How the Oilers can continue to exploit the Stars’ steady defence

Photo credit:© Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
22 days ago
One win down, three more to go.
On Thursday night, the Edmonton Oilers won the 2024 Western Conference Finals opening game against the Dallas Stars. 
In recent history, both teams have faced immense struggles at winning the first game of a playoff series, sporting a combined 1-13 record in the past four seasons in Game 1s. But, the Oilers eventually came out on top in this one, winning 32 seconds into double overtime thanks to a Connor McDavid game-winner. 
It was a fantastic and well-rounded effort for the Oilers overall, with various things you could take from that win. One notable takeaway is the fact that Edmonton ranks first in the playoffs with an outstanding 92 percent penalty-kill percentage, as they killed off ten full minutes of power-play time for the Stars in Game 1. Additionally, Stuart Skinner had one of his best efforts of the playoffs, producing a 0.939 save percentage and saving 1.74 goals above expected per Natural Stat Trick.
But for this piece, I would like to focus on perhaps the Stars’ greatest strength in these playoffs, which Edmonton managed to completely exploit in Game 1; the Stars’ defensive core.
Without any further ado, let’s dive in.
*All on-ice stats via Natural Stat Trick, all microstats via AllThreeZones unless stated otherwise

How Dallas’ game plan is heavily reliant on five defencemen

May 23, 2024; Dallas, Texas, USA; Dallas Stars defenseman Chris Tanev (3) skates against the Edmonton Oilers during the second period in game one of the Western Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The Dallas Stars certainly did not have an easy path to the Western Conference Finals. In Round 1, they faced the Vegas Golden Knights, the defending Stanley Cup Champions, while they faced the Colorado Avalanche in Round 2, the fastest team in the league led by potential Hart winner Nathan MacKinnon.
If I had to point at only one reason as to why Dallas defeated both teams, it would be their rigid 5-on-5 defence.
In the first two rounds of the 2024 playoffs, the Stars did not excel offensively, ranking 11th out of 16 playoff teams in 5-on-5 goals per hour. But, their success was largely driven by the fact that they allowed just 1.5 goals against per hour at 5-on-5, first in the league by a significant margin. 
A major factor in the Stars’ defensive success was the Esa Lindell and Chris Tanev pairing. In Round 1, the duo played 46:34 TOI against Jack Eichel’s line, and Dallas out-scored Vegas 3-0 in those minutes. 
In Round 2, they played 69:01 against Nathan MacKinnon’s line, and once again, Dallas out-scored Colorado 3-1 in those minutes. In the first two rounds combined, Tanev had just 20 zone starts in the offensive zone, compared to 66 in the defensive zone. 
Not only do Lindell and Tanev’s success in this shutdown role grant Dallas a huge advantage defensively, it additionally gives Dallas’ best defenceman in Miro Heiskanen significantly more offensive freedom. 
With Lindell and Tanev taking over all the difficult assignments and all the defensive zone starts, the Miro Heiskanen – Thomas Harley pair obtained significantly more zone starts in the offensive zone against relatively weaker opponents, allowing Dallas to maximize Heiskanen’s offensive potential. Tied with Jason Robertson, Heiskanen leads the Stars with 13 playoff points.
Heiskanen ranks second in the playoffs in average TOI per game, averaging 28:23, while Harley is at 24:46 (11th), Lindell is at 24:43 (12th), Tanev is at 23:49 (20th), and 3LD Ryan Suter averages upwards of 19 minutes. Meanwhile, the Stars have played both Alex Petrovic and Nils Lundqvist at 3RD, but Petrovic has averaged just around 16 minutes in 2 games (despite both games going into double overtime), while Lundqvist averaged a mere 4:28 (!) in 12 games.
The Stars’ sixth defencemen in Jani Hakanpää has been injured in these playoffs, and as such, head coach Peter DeBoer has been extremely reliant on exactly five defencemen: Heiskanen, Harley, Lindell, Tanev, and Suter. 
Considering that Dallas has struggled to finish their scoring chances in these playoffs thus far, it is evident that their game plan is quite reliant on the success of their defensive play, especially from their top-four defensive pairs. Lindell/Tanev’s ability to shut down Vegas and Colorado’s stars, alongside Heiskanen’s production, was absolutely key to their victories.
So, what does this mean for Edmonton?
In Game 1, the Stars had the last change. DeBoer primarily matched the Lindell – Tanev pair against Connor McDavid’s line at 5-on-5 and Miro Heiskanen against Leon Draisaitl’s line. Let’s take a closer look at how each match-up fared.

Edmonton’s top unit vs Lindell and Tanev

Chris Tanev was on-ice for just four goals against at 5-on-5 in the first two rounds combined – but in Game 1 against the Oilers, Edmonton already scored three goals with McDavid on-ice against Tanev.
Defensively, Tanev’s strength is his in-zone defending. In the past four seasons, he has specifically excelled at busting cycles and clearing the front of the net, as his overall scoring chance suppression results rank near the top of the NHL. Tanev is a very well-rounded defenceman overall – but if you had to point at a relative weakness, it would be his rush defending. In the past three seasons, Tanev’s controlled entry-allowed percentage ranks in the 52nd percentile; not bad by any means whatsoever, but if you’re looking for a way to break through Tanev offensively, try targeting his entry defending.
Fortunately, McDavid and the Oilers exposed Tanev’s defence in Game 1, especially off the rush. In total, Edmonton out-chanced Dallas 12 to 2 off the rush, and most of their rush chances came against this pairing.
Let’s go through some video examples.

Failed to load video.

This is your typical McDavid rush attack. After a Dallas zone clear, McDavid is able to immediately re-enter the offensive zone, beat Tanev at the blue line, and generate a high-danger chance. Almost no defender in the league can limit these sorts of plays from McDavid, including Tanev.

Failed to load video.

Edmonton’s second goal of the game was off the rush. First, Skinner makes an excellent save off a shot from Lindell, who moved deep into the offensive zone with no Dallas forward covering for him, causing a very dangerous 2-on-1 duo of McDavid and Hyman the other way. Tanev initially does a good job at breaking up McDavid’s pass, but Hyman does an even better job at sticking with the play and winning a battle against Tanev, eventually putting the puck into the back of the net.

Failed to load video.

Finally, Tanev was also exposed on the overtime winner, this time off the forecheck. RNH beats two Dallas players to get the puck in deep and then beats Tanev to the puck in the corners, leading to a fantastic pass by Bouchard and a tip-in goal by McDavid. Note that Tanev ranks ninth among all defenders in successful D-zone retrievals per hour in the past three seasons; he doesn’t typically botch these types of plays, as this was a fantastic and underappreciated forecheck by Nugent-Hopkins.
Overall, here is a look at Edmonton’s total 5-on-5 results with McDavid on-ice against Lindell and Tanev in Game 1:
After Lindell and Tanev managed to completely shut down Eichel and MacKinnon, these are incredibly encouraging results for McDavid and the Oilers thus far. They will need it to continue.

Draisaitl, Holloway and Kane vs Heiskanen

In terms of defensive playing style, Miro Heiskanen differs from Tanev. Heiskanen is one of the NHL’s best skaters, and he uses it to his advantage by being an excellent rush defender. But his in-zone defending is beatable.
Heiskanen was not on the ice for any goals against in Game 1, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he had a good game by his standards. At 5-on-5, Heiskanen ranked last on the Stars with an expected goal differential of -1.01 (16 percent) and was on the ice for 31 shot attempts against, more than any player on either team. The primary factor for these results was the fact that Peter DeBoer primarily matched Heiskanen against Edmonton’s second line.
They didn’t generate any goals, but the trio of Leon Draisaitl, Dylan Holloway, and Evander Kane had an excellent two-way performance in Game 1. They sported a 66 percent expected goal differential overall, which improved to 83 percent when Heiskanen was on ice for the Stars. Specifically, they excelled at maintaining offensive zone possession.
Let’s dive through even more videos.

Failed to load video.

The play begins with Draisaitl winning a faceoff in the offensive zone, and immediately, the line gets to work off the cycle. Watch the forwards closely. At the beginning of this shift, Holloway does a phenomenal job along the boards and in the corners, maintaining possession and winning puck battles against Harley and Heiskanen. 
When Heiskanen and Duchene first get possession, Holloway disrupts their breakout attempt. As Harley and Pavelski attempt to clear the zone a second time for Dallas, Holloway and Kane disrupt the exit once again, forcing a turnover. Finally, Harley briefly exits the zone, but Draisaitl forces a NZ turnover and immediately re-enters within seconds, as he and Nurse generate a decent rush chance, and the Oilers then spend an additional 10 seconds in the offensive zone. Overall, Heiskanen was stuck in his own zone for over a full minute.

Failed to load video.

Here is another example, early in the first. The play begins with a dump-in by Dallas, with Draisaitl supporting the defenders down low and retrieving the puck. Desharnais and Holloway exit the defensive zone, while Draisaitl and Kane enter the offensive zone against Heiskanen at the blue line. From there, Edmonton’s forwards and defencemen do an excellent job at maintaining possession yet again, consistently disrupting Dallas’ attempts at exiting the zone. 
The puck is kept in the offensive zone for another full 47 seconds until Heiskanen eventually obtains possession and manages to clear it. However, he’s forced to ice it, causing a tired group to stay on the ice even longer.

Failed to load video.

Finally, alongside the second line’s excellent possession results, here’s an extra video example showcasing a high-danger chance for Holloway, in which he breaks past Harley and gets a partial breakaway. 
All-in-all, Edmonton’s second line was absolutely dominant on the forecheck. They hemmed the Heiskanen pair into their own zone all night long. I especially thought this was a fantastic game by Holloway, who excelled at maintaining possession, disrupting opposition exits, and winning battles along the boards throughout the entire game.
This is precisely how you limit and counter an elite puck-mover. Not only does extended offensive zone time grant your team more opportunity to generate offence, it also prevents a player like Heiskanen from moving the puck up the ice to generate offence. The goals will certainly come if the second line continues to play this way for the rest of the series.

What to expect moving forward

I will be fascinated to observe how the match-ups shape up for the remainder of the series. I wonder if DeBoer decides to switch the matchups in Game 2, deploying Tanev against Draisaitl, and Heiskanen against McDavid instead, and I wonder how Knoblauch decides to take advantage of last change when the teams head to Edmonton in Games 3 and 4. For what it’s worth, McDavid also succeeded against Heiskanen in the three games Edmonton played against Dallas this season (73 xG percentage in 30 TOI).
Now, one notably big advantage that Edmonton has over both Vegas and Colorado is that they possess two star centers in both McDavid and Draisaitl. Even if Lindell and Tanev somehow manage to shut down one of Edmonton’s top-six lines, as they did with Eichel and MacKinnon, they’d still have the other superstar to worry about.
Furthermore, as mentioned previously, Dallas has been extremely dependent on their top-five defenders. Dallas has played in four different games heading into overtime, and have played a total of 919:40 minutes in these playoffs; no other team has played over 809 minutes for comparison. At some point, playing such heavy minutes must be taking a toll on the Stars’ top defenders, and I wonder if they were already feeling the fatigue in Game 1.
This is what makes the Oilers such a challenging opponent for the Stars. The fatigue of Dallas’ top defenders, combined with the fact that they now have to face two elite talents on separate lines, potentially grants Edmonton a crucial advantage in this series.
Not to mention, Dallas has a poor 70 percent PK%, and penalties were 5 to 1 in favour of Dallas in Game 1 — they won’t remain that way for the rest of the series, and Edmonton has yet to use its most lethal weapon.
Of course, it is only Game 1. Dallas won against both Vegas and Colorado after losing Game 1 in each respective series. Even if they may be feeling the effects of fatigue, I would still expect Tanev and Heiskanen to be far better moving forward, and I certainly expect DeBoer to make adjustments. Additionally, Roope Hintz has been injured for Dallas’ past three games, and there is a possibility he will return in Game 2; if healthy, he is a difference-maker.
But, for once, the Oilers are off to a strong start in a playoff series. Edmonton controlled play throughout the entirety of Game 1, broke through the top-four of the best 5-on-5 defensive team in the playoffs, and received key saves from their goaltender. There are currently some very encouraging signs for this team.
Game 2 is at 6:00 MT tonight. Let’s wait and see how the Stars respond.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

Check out these posts...