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Round 1 Preview: What the Oilers must do to defeat the Kings for the third straight season

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Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
16 days ago
It’s Round 1, Part 3, between the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings.
With the Vegas Golden Knights losing to the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night and the Los Angeles Kings emerging victorious over the Chicago Blackhawks, the Oilers are set to play the Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs—again
The Oilers finish the season with a record of 49-27-6, ranking 9th in the league and 2nd in the Pacific Division with 104 points. This record is more impressive considering the team’s brutal 2-9-1 start to the season; ever since the coaching change, the Oilers rank first in the NHL in points percentage, boasting a superb 46-18-5 record and a +72 goal differential.
Conversely, the Kings finished with a record of 44-27-11, 12th in the NHL and third in the Pacific Division for the third straight season. The Kings also had a coaching change this season, firing former Oilers coach Todd McLellan on February 2. Los Angeles had a record of 23-15-10 under McLellan at the time of his departure, equating to a 0.583 points percentage. Under newly hired head coach Jim Hiller, LA holds a record of 21-12-1, equating to a 0.632 points percentage.
The Oilers defeated the Kings in the first round of the 2022 playoffs in seven games and beat them once more in the first round of the 2023 playoffs, this time in six games. Edmonton will aim for a third straight series win, while the Kings hope that third time’s the charm to beat the Oilers finally.
So, what must the Oilers do to defeat the Kings once more? Here is a closer look.
*All microstats via AllThreeZones, all other stats via EvolvingHockey and Natural Stat Trick unless stated otherwise

A look into Los Angeles’ results

The Kings’ season can be essentially split into three sections.
Los Angeles initially had a fantastic start to the season, even ranking first in the Pacific Division in points percentage at one point. No team in the league had a greater 5-on-5 scoring chance differential than the Kings in the first 32 games, while they still ranked third in overall 5-on-5 goal differential.
However, they had a major slump that interestingly began with a loss to the Oilers. Edmonton won 3-2 in a shootout over LA on December 30th, and LA then held a 3-7-6 record in their subsequent 16 games. They possessed a brutal 37 percent 5v5 goal differential in that span, while their scoring chance differential declined by 8 percent. Eventually, this slump caused LA to fire head coach Todd McLellan.
Since Feb 2 under head coach Jim Hiller, LA didn’t quite play at the level they did at the beginning of the year, but the results remain strong. The Kings hold a 21-12-1 record, equating to a fairly strong 0.632 points percentage. Their play-driving is not as strong as it was under McLellan, but the goal differential significantly improved following the early 2024 slump.
Right now, LA’s results under Hiller are the most relevant regarding how the Kings could perform in the playoffs. Here is a more in-depth look at LA’s results following the coaching change:
Under both McLellan and Hiller, the Kings have been entirely unexceptional offensively. Their power play has been above average, but the Kings rank just 23rd in the league in total 5v5 goals per hour under Hill, behind non-playoff teams such as Calgary, Columbus, and and Buffalo.
However, the area in which they have excelled is their 5v5 defence. Under Jim Hiller, the Kings have allowed just 1.8 5v5 goals against per hour, ranking second in the entire NHL. They have been an excellent team at preventing scoring chances, ranking fifth in expected goals allowed per hour in that span, while their goaltending ranks seventh. The Kings have not been a particularly significant offensive threat, but their defensive game could certainly be a challenge for Edmonton.

Five Keys to Defeating LA

In terms of playing style, LA has mostly stayed the same from last season, and so I have discussed many of these details numerous times in the past. But, I believe it’s still worth reviewing them once again. 
I believe there are five key things Edmonton must do to emerge victorious in this series.
      1. Break through LA’s 1-3-1
The Kings are notorious for running a 1-3-1 NZ forecheck, a strategy many fans strongly detest as it can often result in low-event hockey.
But while their system may not be as appealing to watch, it has certainly been effective at preventing scoring chances off the rush for them. This season, LA has allowed just 6.1 zone entries leading to scoring chances against per 60 minutes, ranking first in the entire NHL. LA’s first-class rush defending is a major factor in their fantastic defensive results under Jim Hiller.
However, in the past three years, the Oilers have enjoyed a lot of success against LA’s 1-3-1 throughout both the regular season and the playoffs, and it’s not difficult to see why. 
Beating the 1-3-1 requires speed and skill through the neutral zone, areas where McDavid, Draisaitl, and McLeod excel. In 2022, McDavid consistently managed to break through LA’s neutral zone, averaging an excellent 23 controlled entries per hour, while Draisaitl was Edmonton’s MVP against the Kings in 2023, ranking first on the Oilers with 22 controlled entries per hour. Here is a compilation of Draisaitl consistently breaking through LA’s NZ in the first five games of the 2023 playoffs:

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This must continue. With LA’s defensive game heavily reliant on suppressing rush chances, the ability of Edmonton’s top-three centers to generate offence off the rush will be key to their success at generating offence at even-strength.
The 1-3-1 can also be broken through with active support from the weak side defender, which is where Evan Bouchard has massively benefitted the Oilers. He’s led Edmonton’s defensive corps in controlled zone entries by a solid margin in each of Edmonton’s last two playoff appearances against LA. At the same time, Mattias Ekholm, Darnell Nurse, and Brett Kulak also rank reasonably well in this category.
Scoring first will also have a significant impact on this series – don’t allow LA to lead early and run the 1-3-1 trap for the remainder of the game.
The Oilers certainly have the players to break through LA’s NZ trap. Let’s hope they can do it once more.
      2. Consistently force turnovers on dump-in attempts
LA’s 1-3-1 consistently limits controlled zone entries and forces dump-ins; however, a major weakness of LA’s playing style is that they significantly struggle to retrieve those dump-ins.
This season, the Kings have averaged 11.9 botched retrievals per hour in the defensive zone, a rate that ranks 30th in the league, only ahead of the Blue Jackets and Sabres. In particular, Matt Roy ranks fourth last among all NHL defenders in botched retrievals per hour, while Drew Doughty is not far behind.
A strong, effective forecheck from Edmonton could give them a massive advantage in this series. This is why I believe a fast, tenacious player such as Dylan Holloway should be in their regular lineup. Even if the Oilers can break through the 1-3-1, they will still be forced to dump the puck at high rates, especially without their stars on ice, and so Edmonton’s forwards must be hard on the forecheck, consistently forcing LA’s defenders to turn the puck over.
      3. Continue to force rush shots from the outside
Under both McLellan and Hiller, the Kings have not been an exceptional offensive team. In order to keep it that way, limiting LA’s offence, particularly off the rush, to the outside will be key.
This season, the Kings rank second in the league in shots off the rush, and first in shots off a controlled defensive zone breakout. But, despite their high rush volume, the Kings rank 20th in the league in zone entries leading to scoring chances per 60. 
There’s no doubt that Los Angeles can efficiently move the puck up the ice – but their breakouts and entries do not result in quality scoring opportunities at a high rate. This team has been notorious for prioritizing volume over quality, ranking 27th and 29th in average shot quality (xGF/FF) in the past two seasons, respectively.
Edmonton has done an excellent job at limiting quality chances for LA. In the 2022 playoffs, the Kings out-shot Edmonton, but Edmonton held a superb 56 percent high-danger chance differential. In the 2023 playoffs, both teams were relatively close in shots (212 – 201 in favour of Edmonton), but once again, the Oilers boasted a 55 percent high-danger chance share. 
If Edmonton can continue limiting LA’s offence to the outside, and if Skinner can play at the level he has since December, who should be much better following a disappointing playoff debut last season, the Oilers should have no major issue dealing with LA’s offence.
      4. Continue to dominate on special teams
Special teams have played a significant role in Edmonton’s success over Los Angeles, and it must continue. The Oilers held a 36.5% power-play percentage against the Kings in the 2022 playoffs, and an outstanding 56.3% (!) power-play percentage in the 2023 playoffs. 
Edmonton’s power play this season has been strong, but not as dominant as it previously was. Their PP% ranks fourth in the league on the season and 12th since the beginning of March.
The Oilers will hope that the power play can return to its exceptional rates from the prior seasons. While Edmonton was still the better team at 5v5 in each of the past two seasons, their unstoppable power play gave them a huge advantage.
      5. Don’t underestimate the Kings
Edmonton has enjoyed plenty of success against the Kings as of late, while I also believe that, among the three Kings teams from the past three seasons, this current squad is the worst iteration of the three. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are an additional year older, and the Kings have lost useful depth pieces from their roster last season, such as Gabe Vilardi and Alex Iafallo.
However, being overconfident heading into this series is the last thing they should do.
The Kings possess a different head coach behind the bench this time around, and they have ranked second in the league in 5v5 goals against per hour since the coaching change. Los Angeles is also much more relatively healthy in comparison to their prior two playoff appearances. Even with Edmonton’s success against this team, they simply cannot underestimate them; anything can happen in a seven-game series in the NHL playoffs.
That being said, the Oilers have been the best team in the league since Kris Knoblauch’s hiring, and all of their underlying numbers are fantastic. This is Edmonton’s series to lose, and they are certainly the favorite to begin this series.
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