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As the Oilers are on the brink of elimination, what’s gone wrong, and how can they still win this series?

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Photo credit:© Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
10 months ago
89 seconds. That’s all it took to completely change Edmonton’s one-goal lead to a two-goal deficit in Game 5. Eventually, those 89 seconds would end up costing them the game.
The Oilers had a five-minute power-play at the end of the second period and scored three power-play goals in total, but it wasn’t enough. With a 4-3 victory on Friday night, the Vegas Golden Knights are ahead 3-2 in this second-round series over the Edmonton Oilers, as both teams head back to Edmonton for Game 6.
On the bright side, the Oilers are ahead 10 to 3 in special teams goals in this series, with 9 PPG, and an outstanding and historic 47 percent PP% in these playoffs overall.
However, the Golden Knights have out-scored the Oilers 13 to 7 at even-strength. Currently, that’s their most prominent concern in this series.
Here’s a breakdown of what’s gone wrong for the Oilers thus far, why they’re behind, and how they can still emerge victorious.

Vegas is winning the rush game, but…

The average shot off the rush is more likely to result in a goal than the average shot off the cycle or forecheck. Rush shots begin with entering the offensive zone with control, and controlled zone entries are typically 2-3 times more likely to result in a dangerous scoring chance than a dump-in. Consequently, it’s easy to see why transitional play is incredibly important in today’s NHL.
After Game 1, I made an analysis of what Edmonton needs to do to win this series. I wrote that Edmonton’s success would largely depend on how well they perform off the rush. So far, as Vegas is ahead 3-2 in the series, they’re winning the rush game.
The Oilers have entered the offensive zone with control 18 more times than Vegas in this series at 5v5, and are slightly ahead in controlled entry percentage. Rush shot attempts are tied at 52 per team. In these areas, both teams are close, but despite all of this, Vegas has scored five goals off the rush at 5v5, while Edmonton has just two rush goals (Vegas also scored a 4v4 goal off the rush). In terms of actual rush scoring chances, Vegas is ahead 29 to 24.
This was somewhat the opposite story in Round 1 for Edmonton. Controlled entries were 173 – 172 in favour of Edmonton against LA, and rush shot attempts were 83 – 75. In those categories, the difference wasn’t massive, but the Oilers were ahead 45 to 25 in rush scoring chances and eventually out-scored them off the rush. That was a major key to Edmonton’s success in Round 1, and it’s been part of their downfall in this series thus far.
On the bright side, the Oilers have cleaned up their transitional defence since Game 1, in which they allowed eleven rush chances, the equivalent amount that LA had in Games 1-3 of the first round combined. This equated to a rate of 13.4 rush chances against per 60 in Game 1. 
From Games 2-5, that number has significantly dropped down to 6.4, more than two times less. This is a very encouraging sign. I think the Oilers had some issues initially adjusting to Vegas’ transitional offence, and in my opinion, they’ve adjusted well ever since.
Where Edmonton hasn’t improved enough is rush offence. Against LA, 26 percent of Edmonton’s controlled entries led to a scoring chance, whereas that number has declined to 18 percent against Vegas. 
Part of these results are due to Vegas’ defensive system, as the Golden Knights are a team that has performed well at protecting the middle of the ice throughout the entire season. However, there have been numerous odd-man-rushes in this series where Edmonton simply botched their opportunity, failing to even generate a single shot. Although I don’t specifically track this, I have a strong feeling their shooting percentage on 2-on-1s is at an all-time low.
Now, with all of that in mind, Edmonton has out-shot Vegas 129 to 123 in unblocked shot attempts at 5v5 per my microstat tracking. They’re +32 in zone entries. According to Natural Stat Trick, 5v5 scoring chances are 103 to 85 in favour of Edmonton in this series.
Despite their inferior rush play, the Oilers are ahead in this series in both shots and scoring chances at 5v5. A major part of this seems to be their in-zone offence, as they’ve out-shot Vegas 43 to 33 in shots off the cycle (I haven’t tracked cycle chances, but I’d bet they’re ahead in this category as well).
Furthermore, Edmonton’s breakouts have been relatively strong in this series. Their controlled zone exit percentage (under forecheck pressure) against LA was 52 percent, but it’s improved to 58 percent against Vegas. Against LA, they recovered opposition dump-ins at a 53 percent success rate, while it’s jumped up to 71 percent against Vegas. Edmonton has recovered more dump-ins in this series than Vegas has, and they’ve had less turnovers.
And yet, the Oilers hold an ugly 36 percent goal differential, being out-scored 12 to 7 at 5v5, alongside another goal against at 4v4. Before you ask, this isn’t the product of score effects; Edmonton’s score-and-venue adjusted scoring chance differential at 5v5 is at a strong 56 percent.
So what’s happening here?

Let’s talk about Stuart Skinner

The statistic I most frequently use for goaltenders is GSAx – goals saved above expected. It’s a metric that takes into account the quality of each shot against, unlike traditional save percentage. Unfortunately, public GSAx isn’t incredibly reliable due to various flaws with publicly accessible data missing key information (this is an article for another time).
Fortunately, courtesy of Mike Kelly, we have a glance at data from private models, which incorporates more detailed inputs. Here’s a look at how well Skinner has performed in this series.
In total, the Oilers have allowed 14.3 expected goals with Skinner in net, but 16 goals, equating to 1.7 goals allowed more than expected. If you include the LA series, that jumps up to a poor -6.99 GSAx, which can essentially be rounded to a full seven goals allowed more than expected in 11 games. 
There’s just no way around it. Simply put, the Oilers need Skinner to be considerably better. It’s difficult to win in the playoffs with inadequate goaltending. 
As for who should start Game 6, my opinions are mixed. Skinner is the superior goalie, but considering his playoff struggles, alongside the fact that Jack Campbell has performed well when he’s come in for relief, it’s a difficult decision. I can see valid arguments for either side.
That said, Skinner’s GSAx isn’t enough to explain why the Oilers are getting out-scored at 5v5 in this series. There’s another significant issue that’s hampering Edmonton’s goal differential.

The lack of 5v5 finishing

Last season, the Oilers were swept by the eventual cup-winning Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals. Despite this, the Oilers still possessed a player that was tied for the playoff lead in total goals, and it wasn’t Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl; it was Evander Kane, with 13 goals. Zach Hyman was close behind, with 11 goals. While McDavid and Draisaitl were phenomenal (as usual), a massive reason for last season’s playoff run was secondary scoring from their top-six wingers. 
In total, Edmonton had a combined 22 even-strength goals in 16 games from Kane, Hyman and Nugent-Hopkins in the 2022 playoffs.
This time around? The Oilers have received just 3 goals combined at even-strength from their three $5M top-six players. It’s been reported that Kane is playing with an injury, and it’s likely that Hyman isn’t 100% either. Their inability to finish at their standard rates is costing this team. Aside from the GWG in Game 6 against LA of course, Kailer Yamamoto hasn’t really made an impact either.
Going back to Edmonton’s rush offence, Kane has had just two of his controlled entries lead to a quality chance in this series. Hyman is at one, and all playoffs long, Nugent-Hopkins hasn’t had a single controlled zone entry lead to a quality shot. Not only are they struggling to finish, but they’re not generating enough in transition, and that’s another important reason for Edmonton’s mediocre rush offence.
At 5v5, McDavid has 5 primary assists on 45 primary shot assists and 10 high-danger passes and three of those goal assists have come on goals from Draisaitl. As for Draisaitl, he leads the playoffs with 7 5v5 goals but has just 2 primary assists on 41 shot assists and 7 high-danger passes. I’ve felt that McDavid and Draisaitl’s play-making and passing have been dangerous as ever, but their wingers just aren’t converting enough. Draisaitl’s scoring has been fantastic, while he’s had incredibly poor luck in terms of passing, and McDavid is partially the opposite.
McDavid has just one 5v5 goal all playoffs, and not a single one in this series. Last playoffs, his shooting percentage was at 14 percent, but it’s dropped down to just 4 percent in the 2023 playoffs. 

So, what do the Oilers need to do to win this series?

There are a few adjustments that I think Edmonton should make. Firstly, the Oilers need to split up the pairing of Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci.
Cody Ceci hasn’t performed well in these playoffs, and he’s struggled alongside Darnell Nurse all season long. Vegas has generated more rush chances against this pairing than any other pair. We’ve had plenty of evidence to suggest that Ceci just isn’t cutting it as a top-four defenceman, and I think it’s well past the time to try Brett Kulak at RD with Nurse.
Nextly, Jay Woodcroft has to deal with Jack Eichel. Here’s a great thread regarding Eichel’s impact in this series. Vegas is ahead 6 to 1 in 5v5 goals with Eichel on-ice, while both teams are tied 6 to 6 in 5v5 goals with Eichel off. He’s had a major impact on this series.
The Oilers center with the most TOI against Eichel has been Nick Bjugstad, who’s been out-scored 3 – 0 when facing Eichel, alongside sporting a ghastly 14% expected goal differential. The centers with the most success against Eichel have been McDavid and McLeod. Woodcroft’s line-matching has to be significantly better.
Furthermore, Edmonton has scored the first goal in every game of this series thus far, but in Game 1, Vegas scored a minute after Draisaitl’s first goal. Vegas scored 1:59 after Foegele’s first goal in Game 3, and 50 seconds after McDavid’s first goal in Game 5. The Oilers have to improve at protecting their lead, and they just can’t sit back. Not to mention, their top-six wingers simply have to improve.
With all of that in mind, has Edmonton been bad at 5v5 overall? Their goal differential certainly suggests so, but honestly, I’m not so sure. 
Hockey is the most luck-influenced sport out there. The playoffs are not a large sample, and can often be a game dictated by bounces and momentum. The margin for error is exceedingly slim, as even the slightest of errors can end up costing you.
In Game 5, the Oilers entered the first intermission with a 2-1 lead. For most of the game, I thought they played well, at least until Mattias Janmark’s high-sticking penalty led to the tying 5-on-3 goal, and from there, Vegas scored two more quick goals. Just like that, it was an entirely different game.
Yes, Edmonton undoubtedly has some areas to tweak and improve on as suggested in this article, but overall, I don’t think they’ve played terribly. Again, they’ve had more zone entries, shots, and scoring chances at 5v5 in this series. Not to mention, Vegas has the highest PDO among all teams in the playoffs. Of course, that doesn’t matter a ton in a seven-game playoff series, but my point is rather that Edmonton’s gameplan doesn’t have to drastically change. The sky isn’t falling yet.
Simply put, the Oilers would largely benefit from superior goaltending, whether it’s from Skinner or Campbell, and their top-six forwards must start producing at their typical rates again. Connor McDavid won’t remain at a four percent shooting percentage at 5v5 forever, and these next two games would be a great time for him to regress to the mean.
Game 6 is at 8:00 MT tonight. The Oilers were in this exact position against LA in the first round last season. Time to string together two wins in a row for the first time in this series.
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