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The Edmonton Oilers v. The Vegas Golden Knights: A Tactical Preview

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Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
10 months ago
The inaugural playoff series between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vegas Golden Knights has the potential for fireworks on many levels.
It has McDavid v. Eichel. It has the first and second-ranked teams in the West. They are also the two teams who combined for 32 goals in their four games, which was substantially higher than NHL regular season average this year. No question it will be a high-event series. Now when I think of the Golden Knights style of play, I think of fast, high-pressure and quick transition-type tactics. The days of Gerard Gallant in particular come to mind. Even Peter DeBoer with his hybrid 2-1-2/1-2-2 forecheck and the dreaded “swarm” in the defensive zone created high-paced games with frenetic action against the Oilers. However, the 2022/23 version of the Golden Knights are not your Dad’s Golden Knights. Indeed, while this series might have some higher goal-scoring totals, it will not come about from the types of tactics we remember from the early days of the Vegas franchise as we will see below.

The Vegas Golden Knights Tactical Playbook

The Bruce Cassidy era in Vegas brought many of the tactics that worked successfully for him in Boston. Cassidy brought these changes despite the obvious early franchise success of Vegas playing a much different style. In reading some articles of when Cassidy came on, he talked about creating systems that would be “goaltender friendly”. The connotation I took from that was the team would be more defensively oriented. Well, would you be surprised to know that the Vegas Golden Knights finished tenth in goals against this year in the regular season? So who are these brand new Vegas Golden Knights with their shiny golden helmets in terms of their tactics? Let’s find out below.

The Golden Knight Defensive Zone

Given that Cassidy talked about “goaltender-friendly” systems, let’s start with the Vegas defensive zone tactics. Cassidy installed a system that relies heavily on protecting the net front. In a typical set-up, when the puck is low, the Golden Knights have D1 on the puck and D2 on the strong side of the net. F1 supports very low toward the puck. In addition, F2 and F3 collapse hard to the front of the net as well. Here is a clip that illustrates this base setup. F2 and F3 are the keys to watch when Vegas is in its zone. In this clip, when the puck goes low, F2 and F3 move lower into the zone to protect the slot.

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Here is another clip that illustrates the Vegas defensive tactics. As we will see F2 and F3 again defer to a low position when the puck is sent low. However, here let’s focus on F1 (#20) and how unwilling F1 is to move up the zone even when his team has the opposition outmanned down low. At one point, Vegas has five defenders covering two Winnipeg Jets down low. For the Golden Knights, they are far more willing to give up point shots in hopes they can be blocked or if they get through, the goalie swallows up the puck or the defensive presence down low will recover the loose puck after the goalie makes the first save.
So how do you beat this style of defensive play? Well, the first way to do is the most simple one: execute your play before Vegas can get into shape defensively. Here watch RNH and Draisaitl execute a low give-and-go that finishes with a Hyman tap-in. The Golden Knights are close to being set up, but not quite there and it allows Draisaitl to penetrate the slot. The Golden Knights defender is now faced with a quick developing 2v1 and cannot make the stop on the cross-crease pass.

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The second way to defeat this style of defensive zone structure is by countering with a 2-3 OZ attack. The basics of this play is to pull a forward up top with the defencemen in hopes of bringing that low forward for the Golden Knights away from the net. This allows more space for the forwards down low and it possibly opens up the middle of the slot. Here is a prime example of how this can work from a faceoff. Watch RNH come off this faceoff and move to the top of the zone. The Vegas forward is leery to come to Nugent-Hopkins, but finally commits which creates space down low. This allows McDavid and Hyman to operate 2v2 with space. Look for this type of play quite often in this series.

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Here is another example of the 2-3 attack with Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl retrieves a loose puck and gets it up top to the point. Watch Draisaitl recognize the opportunity to come up top when all of the Golden Knights collapse to the net front. In this case, Draisaitl does not attack the slot, but the space was there for him to get inside and create havoc.

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My hope is to see a lot of this type of play in this series. The Oilers have such immense talent up front in terms of puck skills and skating ability that creating space for them to attack downhill should serve them well. In basketball terms, it’s like running an isolation play up top for a point guard who has excellent ball skills. The exact principles apply here.

Vegas Golden Knights Neutral Zone Forecheck

Moving up the ice, the Golden Knights under Bruce Cassidy have implemented a very passive 1-2-2. In fact, when leading or in high-leverage times in a game, the Golden Knights often play a 1-4 where F2, F3, D1 and D2 are all in one part of the neutral zone together. This is quite a change from Peter DeBoer’s 1-1-3 that was run last year and a full 180-degree turn from Gerard Gallant’s chaotic attack on all fronts style. This forecheck scheme is essentially the same as the Oilers version with the only difference being the level of aggression being applied.
Here is a clip of the Vegas version with two examples in one shift. In the first part, Vegas F1 attacks Leon Draisaitl who picks up the puck. F2 and F3 immediately start heading back up the ice. When Draisaitl chips it out, D1 does step up, but look how far back D2 is and look at the skate direction of F2 and F3. They are headed back to defend their zone. It creates the turnover but does so in a passive manner. The second example is an illustration of almost a 1-4. Kane gets full control of the puck and circles the net. Despite F1 having Kane angled to the wall, watch F2 and F3. Both of them drift back into the neutral zone where they link up with D1 and D2. All four of them are almost in one-half of the neutral zone. It is a very passive neutral zone forecheck.

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Because of its passivity, I expect the Oilers to face a lot of dump-and-chase situations when Vegas is properly set up. Much like the Kings series, the Oilers will need to win some battles in the zone off loose pucks against the walls. However, that does not mean it should be the default counter for the Oilers. The most effective way to defeat this forecheck is to simply not allow it to set up. Here is a great example by Leon Draisaitl. The key for this whole play is Draisaitl moving up the ice before F1 can get established and that allows him to gain the middle of the ice. Once a player can get to the middle of the ice on a 1-2-2, he can take the play to either side. This runs counter to the goal of the 1-2-2 where F1 is to force the puck carrier in one direction. Draisaitl actually fakes a direction and moves the other way and that loosens the forecheck for a brilliant entry and pass leading to a great goal.

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This play should be the focus of the Oilers. McDavid, Draisaitl and McLeod all have the ability to execute the play above. The more the Oilers push the puck north before Vegas can get ready, the more success the Oilers will have.

Vegas Golden Knights Offensive Zone Forecheck

The most distinct change for the Golden Knights is the offensive zone forecheck. While the Golden Knights will still chase 50/50 pucks hard with multiple players (think 2-1-2 stack forecheck), the default play is to use a passive 1-2-2. The base is for F1 to chase the puck and push it to one side or the other. F2 and F3 play higher up and focus more on trying to defend the exit attempt. This is slightly different than most 1-2-2 offensive forechecks where F2 steps down to force the puck carrier before the exit attempt. Here is a clip that illustrates this forecheck fairly well. F1 comes flying into the zone to attack the puck. Now look at the pace at which the F2 and F3 attack the zone. Each player is really coasting in waiting for the Jets to make their play. In this case, the goalie simply hands it to F2 and Vegas goes on offense.

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Here is another example where again F2 and F3 are very passive on the forecheck and, instead, focus on trying to create the turnover after the Jets make their exit attempt. Instead of chasing hard down low, the Vegas forwards wait until an exit attempt is made before attacking the puck.

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For the Oilers, one of the keys against this forecheck will be to have the F1 very low in their zone. This will help the defence with outlets into the middle of the ice where the 1-2-2 has its weaknesses. Here is a great play by Connor McDavid supporting his defence down low. He retrieves a bump pass from Nurse and outlets a stretch pass to the neutral zone to Hyman. The last part of the play is also key. Look at who receives a pass in the neutral zone to establish an offensive zone attack: Cody Ceci. Another element of weakness to the 1-2-2 offensive zone forecheck is the F4. The F4 being D2 racing up the ice when the low forward gets the puck and is able to exit. This F4 can create odd-man rushes against the 1-2-2 routinely when properly executed.

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What I do not want to see is the forward group as a whole cheating up the ice in their zone. The mid-lane is going to be key because the 1-2-2 is designed to defend the walls and the glass on the exit. The middle 40 feet of the ice will be available especially down low and it will critical for them to take advantage of that space.

Keys To The Series Tactically Speaking

There are a few keys for me to this series at 5v5. First, and foremost, is whether McDavid and Draisaitl play together. If they do, then a lot will be asked of the second line. If that second line is Bjugstad-RNH-Hyman, it will need to be much, much better in this series. Now it is important to note that McDavid and Draisaitl did not play together in the last two games of the regular season against the Vegas Golden Knights. Each had their own line and performed quite well.
The second key for me is Ryan McLeod. I think he is built to play against these types of tactics. He is an excellent skater. He plays low in his own zone and is therefore available to exit the zone in the middle. He carries the puck with speed at a level that is above most of the Oiler forwards. The passive offensive and neutral zone forechecks of the Golden Knights should leave lots of space and seams for McLeod to attack.  Now while I think he has a chance to have a great series, the reason he is a key for me is because of the Vegas forward group. The Vegas forward group is very deep. The third line in Vegas will be a big challenge. If the second line continues to struggle, the third line will need best its competition. The Oilers will struggle if two of their top three lines are getting overwhelmed.
The final key for me at 5v5 is the Oilers being “patiently aggressive”. I know it is a weird phrase, but I have limited brain power and it’s all I can think to call it. Being aggressive means turning the puck north quickly from their zone and the neutral zone as well as attacking the Vegas defensive structure quickly. Now that cannot happen all the time. There will be times when Vegas is already in position. At that point, the Oilers cannot force plays that lead to quick transition plays from the Golden Knights at the bluelines. As my old coach referred to it, I’ll be looking for the Oilers play in the “poop your pants” zones. If it smells like diaper change time, the Oilers will have troubles with the Golden Knights.
That’s it for the tactical preview of the Oilers-Golden Knights series. As always, your feedback is welcome right here or @bcurlock in the Twitter machine. See you after game one.

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