Six Thoughts Heading Into Game Six

Photo credit:© Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
1 year ago
Tonight, the Edmonton Oilers will face the Los Angeles Kings in Round 1, Game 6 of the 2023 NHL playoffs. 
Thanks to a 6-3 victory in Game 5 on Tuesday night, Edmonton is ahead 3-2 in this series. For the second straight season, they possess the chance to eliminate the Kings in the first round.
With a three-day break between Games 5 and 6, primarily due to Crypto Arena additionally having to host NBA playoff games for the Lakers and Clippers, I’ve had some extra time to take a deeper look into this series.
With various statistics from my microstat tracking project for the Oilers these playoffs, here are six thoughts heading into Game Six:

An outstanding series for Brett Kulak so far

For most of the regular season, Brett Kulak was solid, but nothing exceptional. Primarily partnered with Tyson Barrie, he was deployed as Edmonton’s 2LD behind Darnell Nurse until the Mattias Ekholm trade, and he then moved down to the third pair. With Evan Bouchard requiring a contract in the offseason, it’s likely that some contracts will be on the move. There’s been discussion that Kulak may be the odd man out in the summer.
So far, his playoff performance makes it difficult to justify a trade.
There are several stats to digest here. First, let’s discuss the zone entry defence. Per Corey Sznajder’s tracking in the regular season, the Kings carry the puck into the offensive zone with control at a higher efficiency than every team currently in the playoffs. When LA attempts a zone entry against the rest of Edmonton’s defencemen, they’ve entered with control 60 percent of the time, but when they challenge Kulak at the blue line, it drops down to 48 percent.
Under some degree of opposition pressure (i.e. at least one opposition player was in the DZ), Edmonton’s defencemen have combined for 378 puck touches in the defensive zone, committing 52 turnovers. On 59 puck touches for Kulak, he’s made just 4 turnovers, equating to an 8 percent turnover rate, while the rest of the defence combines at 15 percent. Kulak also retrieves LA’s dump-ins at a 64 percent success rate, compared to just 44 percent for the rest of the defencemen. 
Not only is Kulak defending the rush well, as he usually does, he’s also rarely turning pucks over, consistently beating LA’s forecheckers to dump-ins against, and then moving the puck with success once he retrieves it. Furthermore, Kulak is tied with Evan Bouchard for first among Edmonton’s defencemen in controlled zone entries and controlled zone exits in less TOI. What impresses me the most about Kulak is his smooth skating abilities, and it’s certainly been on display in this series.
In Game 5, Kulak was rewarded with a goal off a sublime pass from Ryan McLeod. He undoubtedly deserved that one.
Of course, Kulak isn’t playing in the top four, so quality of competition does have a considerable impact on those metrics. But regardless, you can’t ask Kulak to do much more. He’s been fantastic, and it’s an absolute luxury to have such a quality player on your third-pairing.

Leon Draisaitl always shows up at this time of the year

While the playoffs do tend to be a smaller sample, there are often those “clutch” players that consistently elevate their play when the stakes are high. One of those players is Leon Draisaitl, who’s produced at an exact two points-per-game rate in his last two playoff appearances.
Per Prashanth Iyer, among all players with over 200 regular season games and 40 playoff games, no one sees a larger increase in playoff scoring rate than Draisaitl. His PPG increases by nearly half a point per game in the playoffs. Among all players with at least 40 playoff games in their careers, Draisaitl holds the second-highest playoff PPG rate of all time, behind only Wayne Gretzky.
It’s crazy to think about; Draisaitl already leads all players in goals in the past five regular seasons. He’s consistently produced at a 100+ point pace in every season since 2018-19. And yet, he still finds some way to increase his production in the playoffs. Insane.
Now, let’s talk a bit more about how he’s been so dominant.
Since the beginning of February, the Kings allowed just 1.95 goals against per hour at 5v5, a lower (better) rate than every team in the league but the Bruins. On the season overall, per Corey Sznajder, LA allows fewer scoring chances per controlled zone entry against than every team in the league, which includes Boston. Put differently, they were the league’s best team at defending scoring chances off the rush in the regular season.
That hasn’t stopped Leon Draisaitl.
LA’s 1-3-1 NZ trap has been unable to contain Draisaitl. He’s entered the zone with control 78 percent of the time, and leads all players in this series with 24 total zone entries per 60, and 19 controlled entries per 60. 10 of his controlled zone entries have led to quality scoring chances, and he’s made a primary contribution to 21 unblocked shot attempts off the rush (7 shots taken, 14 primary shot assists)
LA isn’t a particularly strong offensive team, and relatively, their forecheck/cycle defence isn’t outstanding. Their rush defence is a critical component of their game, and Draisaitl has been able to consistently infiltrate through it.
Here are some video highlights of Draisaitl attacking off the rush this series and creating quality chances.

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A deeper look into how Edmonton has been much better at 5v5

Speaking of rush play, here’s how Edmonton and LA have compared overall:
Notice the discrepancy in the differentials between rush shots and controlled entries leading to chances. LA’s forwards, most notably Viktor Arvidsson, have taken a lot of lower-quality shots off the rush from the outside. Edmonton’s defencemen have done a good job at limiting their space to make plays, although with that said, this volume-based approach isn’t anything new for them.
Roughly one-fourth of Edmonton’s controlled entries have led to a scoring chance, while less than one-sixth of LA’s controlled entries are leading to chances. Led by Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers have done a splendid job at outplaying Los Angeles in transition.
Even when Edmonton’s controlled entries haven’t led to a direct chance, Edmonton has done a strong job at establishing possession and obtaining chances off extended zone time. Unblocked shot attempts off the cycle are 73 to 47 in favour of Edmonton.
Now, what about the forecheck?
LA has actually out-scored Edmonton off the forecheck at 5v5, although Edmonton has played superior in every other forechecking-related facet, as they’ve recovered more dump-ins and forced more turnovers/icings. 
Neither team’s dump-in recovery rate is spectacular, but I’ve generally liked Edmonton’s offence off the forecheck. While they’ve broken through LA’s 1-3-1 off the rush, they’ve also done a strong job at dumping it in with speed and quickly pressuring the LA defender going back to retrieve the dump-in. LA has turned the puck over in their defensive zone 24 times more than Edmonton.
However, perhaps they can somewhat improve at defending the forecheck, and this mostly applies to Edmonton’s top-pairing. When going back to retrieve an opposition dump-in, Cody Ceci has been beaten to the puck by an LA forechecker 8 out of 19 times, and in the 8 times he has won the race, he’s turned it over 4 times. Overall, he has a 21 percent dump-in retrieval success rate, while the rest of the defence is at a combined 51 percent. His partner Nurse hasn’t fared much better either, as he sits at a 31 percent success rate. This is a big area of improvement for both of them.
Regardless, in spite of the forecheck goal differential, I believe Edmonton has been the better forechecking team. This is just something to note, and by no means is this a major concern. I’m quite satisfied with Edmonton’s 5v5 performance overall.

McDavid still isn’t at the top of his game, but…

I don’t think Connor McDavid has been as brilliant as he usually is, at least at 5v5.
On the bright side, he’s still dangerous off the cycle, as he leads the team in shot assists off the cycle. With 2 cross-slot passes and 4 behind-the-net passes leading to dangerous shots, McDavid also leads all players in this series in 5v5 high-danger passes, even more than Draisaitl. Furthermore, he has a 56% on-ice scoring chance differential. Los Angeles has struggled to contain McDavid’s in-zone offence.
However, he hasn’t been as lethal off the transition as he typically is.
The good news is that McDavid is still generating rush chances when he does enter the zone; 42 percent of his controlled entries have led to a quality shot, which is slightly higher than even Draisaitl, so perhaps this isn’t the biggest concern in the world. However, his transition volume has decreased. Some of that seems to be strong defensive play by LA.
With that said, Ryan Rishaug tweeted a video of McDavid in practice, where he seemed to be shaking off a sore leg, leading to some injury speculation. Frank Seravalli did say that McDavid isn’t injured, and combined with the fact that McDavid was an active participant in practice two days prior to the game, there’s likely nothing serious at play here. However, it is possible that he isn’t entirely at 100%.
With all of that in mind, how often can a player have 8 points in 5 playoff games and yet still aren’t at the top of their game? The thing is, we’re all used to having such lofty standards for him. 
McDavid has set the bar so high that when he “only” produces 1.6 points per game, we question if he’s playing with some sort of injury. Sometimes, I don’t think we’re grateful enough for how lucky we are to have him on this team.
I think McDavid will explode at 5v5 soon. Teams won’t be able to contain his transitional play forever.

Let’s talk about Vinny

Edmonton had a disastrous start to Game 4, down 3-0 in the first period. Vincent Desharnais was on-ice for all three goals and made noticeable errors on all of them. During Edmonton’s comeback, Desharnais hardly played, and was benched following the midway mark of the second.
When LA attempts to enter the zone against the rest of Edmonton’s defenders, they’ve entered with control 57 percent of the time, but when they target Desharnais, LA’s controlled entry rate goes up to 76 percent. He and Broberg are the only defenders without a single zone entry denial, and Broberg has played less than half the minutes that Desharnais has. Furthermore, his 19% d-zone turnover rate is the highest (worst) among Edmonton’s defencemen.
Desharnais can break up cycles with his long reach, and he’s also produced strong PK results. However, my biggest concern with him is his mobility and skating, and the Kings have exploited that weakness. His decision-making under pressure is also suspect at times. 
The 11/7 alignment is helpful here. Moving forward, I’d probably give Broberg more TOI at 5v5, while I’d give Desharnais more TOI on the penalty kill.

It’s time to finish the series

Recall that roughly one year ago, the roles were reversed. The Kings were ahead 3-2 in the series against the Oilers, returning to LA to play Game 6. Edmonton hasn’t finished the job yet.
The winner of this series will face the Vegas Golden Knights, who were the first team to advance to the second round on Thursday by winning in 5 games against the Winnipeg Jets. Edmonton should be focused on closing out this series in six games to get some extra rest for their players who aren’t at 100%.
The Kings will push hard. Urgency and desperation will be high. But the Oilers have been the far superior team at 5v5 this series, and they’ve been deadly on the power play. As long as they stick to their game plan, I believe they will emerge victorious.
Finish them off tonight.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)


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