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The Edmonton Oilers v. The Vegas Golden Knights Game 1: A Tactical Review

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Photo credit:Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
9 months ago
When I said in the preview of the first-round playoff match-up between the Oilers and the Kings, I really meant to say it would happen against the Vegas Golden Knights in round two.
Oh mamma, Jay Woodcroft’s video machine must have been running hot after last night’s 6-4 loss to the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights played well, but the Oilers really caused a lot of their own pain in the first 45 minutes of this game. From my perspective, the passive game by the Golden Knights worked to perfection last evening allowing the Oilers to walk into mistakes which the Golden Knights capitalized on efficiently.  In the end, it was a 6-4 loss, but I would imagine the Oilers’ coaching staff thinks the Oilers caused loss more than the Golden Knights caused the win.

What Did I See Last Night?

Vegas Golden Knights Offensive Zone Forecheck

I said in the preview article on this series that this was not your Dad’s Golden Knights. Nothing more exemplifies that than the passive 1-2-2 offensive zone forecheck employed by Bruce Cassidy. As a reminder, what we identified is that F1 goes hard at the puck with F2 and F3 coasting until the puck carrier makes a play. F1 tries to force that play to the wall which then allows F2 and D1 to attack hard and try and create a turnover. Here are a couple of great examples of the Vegas offensive zone forecheck. The key in both is to watch how passive the F2 and F3 are until the Oilers make that first play with the puck and then watch the Golden Knights attack.

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Again, this is not an aggressive 2-1-2 that we are used to seeing from the Golden Knights of the past. It is patient until it sees an opportunity to attack after a play is made. Of course, there is one more example from this game of the 1-2-2 forecheck and it is one that Vincent Desharnais will not soon forget.

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Fortunately for the Oilers, there are countermeasures that are easy to deploy against this style of forecheck. Most importantly, the Oilers need a low forward. This can have two effects. First, it gives the Oilers defenceman an additional short passing option other than his defensive partner. Secondly, it will provide the Vegas forecheck some hesitation about attacking too hard. Here is an example of how this can work well for the Oilers.

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The other part that I expect will be better next game is the defence group outlet passing. It was a very rough start for the Oilers defenders in terms moving the puck north even without pressure and I expect that to be much improved in game two.

Vegas Golden Knights Defensive Zone

As I pointed out in the preview edition, the Vegas Golden Knights protect the slot like it’s the crown jewels of the United Kingdom (shout out to the coronation tomorrow). The Golden Knights had 23 shot blocks in game one. The best clip I can show of their work is actually the Sportsnet/CBC analytics ribbon displayed in the first period. At this point in the game, the shots were 12-3 for Vegas.

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The Oilers had more offensive zone time and were only 3 shot attempts behind the Golden Knights. That is some seriously good defending.
So how do the Oilers break this down? Again, quick strikes before the Golden Knights can set up are always good. However, my preference would be for the Oilers to be patient in the offensive zone and wear down the Golden Knights using a 2-3 attack. The Oilers did this a little bit last night and need to do more. Instead of settling for trying to jam the puck into the slot from down low, the better play is to bring it high and incorporate your defencemen into the play. Here is a fantastic clip of McDavid and Ekholm working together. Watch all of the Golden Knights off the puck focus on McDavid. This leaves all kinds of opportunities on the backside for Oiler players.

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McDavid and Ekholm also teamed up on another one where had Ekholm made a slightly different read, he likely has a down-low 2v1.

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The Vegas defensive zone was spectacular in game one, but I wonder if that is an area that can be exploited as the series goes on and players begin to wear down.

The Golden Knights’ Passive Play (Not Always)

One point of emphasis that I would make today to Oilers players is to be a little more patient when they gain control of the puck. Whether it was nerves or an assumption of pressure, the Oilers seemed to rush their plays early. Here is an example with Darnell Nurse. Watch him, watch Mark Stone who really is backing off more than anything and look at the support Nurse has beside him.

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Here is another one with Klim Kostin. Kostin has time to relax and put this puck onto his teammates stick. The Oilers do an excellent job with their defensive coverage here resulting in a loose puck. Kostin comes down the wall knowing that there are three Golden Knights low and his players are breaking out ahead of them.  All he had to do was take a half of second to see what was happening behind him. However, you can see that his eyes are down and he seems worried about what is behind him without even looking. The result was a turnover and a goal against.

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The Vegas Golden Knights will give the Oilers time and space because they are more passive in their offensive and neutral zone schemes. Where they are not passive is in transition. This is the part of the game where the Vegas Golden Knights play quickly. Here is the pre-eminent example of game one. The Oilers are in great shape on this play with all of their players over top of the puck or over top of their check except one. Watch what happens when the Ceci shot is blocked. Look at how many Oilers are now lost on their check.

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Certainly Nurse should not have drifted over given it was essentially a 3v2.  However, the number of Oilers who went from great position to behind their check is not good enough. That needs to be cleaned up in game two.

On To Game Two

In addition to the assessment above, I would sure like to see 97 and 29 split up for game two. As opposed to some people who think this will help the Oilers match the Golden Knights’ forward depth, I think it actually accentuates a strength of the Oilers: center depth. I remain unconvinced the Golden Knights centers can match McDavid, Draisaitl and McLeod with an assist from Bjugstad. I also think it will put more pressure on the Vegas schemes by not giving certain Golden Knights players easier match-ups.
The other element is shot creation. I thought the Oilers settled for too many point shots in this game that had a low probability of creating a goal. More focus on working the puck lower using 2-3 attacks can help with that. Higher-quality shots should lead to more goals against a relatively untested goaltender.
That is it for today everyone. As always, feedback here or to @bcurlock on Twitter. Have a great day.

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