The Edmonton Oilers v. The Vegas Golden Knights Game 4: A Tactical Review

Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
1 year ago
It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. It was the worst of times, it was the best of times. That is the most succinct way I can summarize the first four games for the Edmonton Oilers in this second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Honestly, the team has literally played two games at one level of execution and effort and the other two at a completely different level. In game four, it was the good Edmonton Oilers game and the result was a resounding 4-1 win in which the Oilers were dominant in all facets of the game. The question will be whether the Oilers can do it all again in consecutive games.
Do what, you say? Let’s look below.

What Did I See Last Night?

The Oilers Got Connected

One of the most visual parts of the Oilers’ game, when it is poor, is their execution of zone exits. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to break it down because you see the Oilers lobbing Hail Mary pass after Hail Mary Pass one hundred feet down the ice. Here is a typical example, although not a full-on stretch pass. Kulak has a short option in flight, but chooses a longer, more high-risk pass and it results in a turnover and a shot attempt against.

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Last night, the Oilers were far more connected. By connected, I mean there was a lot of short pass options for the defence group tonight and that made the exits so much easier. If you think it was a fluke, watch this first clip with Leon Draisaitl. The part I want to focus on is him realizing there was a 1-2-2 forecheck coming from Vegas and absolutely busting it down low to get a nice short pass. That was a concerted effort to make Mattias Ekholm’s life much easier. When Ekholm comes out from behind the net, look at how many options he has to make a safe pass. A definite commitment by the Oilers to play more connected and come up the ice as a group when the neutral zone forecheck of Vegas is established.

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Here is another example that really shows the intentional work by the Oilers to be available for short passes. Nurse takes the puck back and waits for the set up by his forward group. At the first pause, he has two nice short options from McLeod and Foegele. Plus he could have held the puck and went across the ice to Cody Ceci. This is such a comforting feeling for a defenseman starting an exit. Nice low risk, short passes available across the ice. Nurse chooses Foegele for the outlet pass. Now watch the next pause in the clip. Foegele has McLeod in the middle and Ceci across the ice. He makes a great feed across to Ceci and the Oilers are on the attack.

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To me, this is the secret sauce for the Oilers in the remainder of the series. The Oilers’ skill and speed up front give them lots of ability to beat the Golden Knights’ forecheck. If the forwards continue their efforts to get back low and be available for short passes, I am not certain the Golden Knights have an adjustment that can counter this attack. This will all be more important in game five if the Oilers lose Darnell Nurse to suspension and the Oilers are forced to play a third pairing of Broberg and Desharnais.

The Commitment To Defence

When the game was in doubt last night, the Vegas Golden Knights has four shots on net at 5v5. Four! Four! That’s an incredible number. An even more impressive number is the Vegas Golden Knights had one high-danger chance in the first two periods according to Natural Stat Trick. Most of this related simply to effort and not some tactical change that occurred. Let’s take a look at one example here that illustrates this so perfectly. The  Golden Knights exit the zone 2v2 against Kulak and Desharnais. Foegele hustles into position to get over top of the third Vegas player. This allows the defence to play nice tight gaps at the blue line forcing a stop up by the Vegas puck carrier. Desharnais makes a great pressure play causing a turnover. Now on the next freeze-frame look at all the Oilers back in the zone and able to support Desharnais. This was a constant all night. On this play it ultimately led to the goal by Bjugstad and it should not be underrated as to its contribution of the goal. A great play by Desharnais supported by all his teammates.

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The 2-3 Offensive Attack

Oh mama, I love this coaching staff. This to me was the single best adjustment made by them in the playoffs to date. This is saying something given some of their tactical work in the LA Kings series. We highlighted in the preview article that the Vegas Golden Knights were going to clog the slot with all five players and force the Oilers to take shots from the outside. I have tweeted the trend in each game for 5v5 shots by defensemen and it largely followed that if the defence were taken larger shares of the 5v5 shots, the Oilers were losing. When they were taking a much smaller share, the Oilers were winning. The idea here was that when the Oiler forwards were leading the way, it was shots that were more likely to create scoring chances. In game four, the evidence could not have been more stark. When the game was in doubt in the first two periods, the Oilers had 21 5v5 shots. Only five were taken by defencemen and one of those was a bomb from Mattias Ekholm from the circles that ended up in the net.
So was there a tactical change by the Edmonton Oilers? I am going to cautiously say yes and it relates to a concept called the 2-3 offensive zone attack. The idea here is to bring a forward up high in the zone with the goal of trying to pull multiple defenders away from slot. This creates space in behind these defenders and above the two defencemen sitting net front. In addition, it creates cross-ice seams allowing for royal road passes that can lead to one-time shot attempts. Now the reason, I hesitate to say this is a tactical change is the Oilers do run this from time to time. However, tonight was on another level. I counted 6 separate 2-3 attacks in the first 10 minutes of the game. Here is a tremendous example of what happened all night. McDavid enters the zone and ends up with the puck on the wall. He sends it back up top to Darnell Nurse. Nurse makes a nice read to not shoot or dump the puck, but instead keeps coming down the wall and McDavid steps up top on a puck exchange. Now McDavid has the puck and is able to attack the middle of the offensive zone or the “funnel” as some coaches call this area. Watch on the second stop. McDavid has pulled all three Vegas players away from the net. This creates space in behind them. McDavid distributes to Draisaitl who could wait on a cross seam pass given the space or take the puck to the net. This leads to a great attempt on net.

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Here is another clip that I really love. It starts with great recognition by Cody Ceci that Vegas has collapsed and a shot on net would be low percentage. So he moves the puck across to Nurse. Now watch Kane come up the middle of the ice to make himself available and he was, but the puck goes to Draisaitl. Now watch Kane and Draisaitl work the 2-3 attack off the wall. Draisaitl comes up the wall and three Vegas checkers come with him creating a huge area of space in the funnel for Kane. Unfortunately, Kane cannot handle the puck, but for certain it was going to be a high-danger shot attempt.

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However, my favourite clip of the night on this tactic involves Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Watch this whole clip and how RNH manipulates the Vegas D by constantly coming to the top of the zone. Ignore the Darnell Nurse floater that really should have been a pass to RNH. In the end, it works out as RNH comes down the funnel into a wide-open area and makes a tremendous shot. This was RNH at his finest. Again that type of offensive zone attack will win the day against this Vegas defensive zone if done consistently.

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Hail The Third Line!

I have two clips I want to share. If you are wondering why this third line of Foegele-McLeod-Ryan had such a dominant night, these clips will help. It is a great combination of speed with McLeod and Foegele, physical play from Foegele, puck transporting by McLeod and the giant brain of Derek Ryan who keeps it all together. Watch this first clip in all its glory. Watch their commitment to keeping a F3 and how smoothly they rotate. Then watch how they support the defence in their own zone and make a nice exit. Ok, I will shut up know and you can enjoy.

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This next clip is 63 seconds of coaching joy. I only freeze it once to highlight Derek Ryan reacting to Foegele replacing him as F2 and how he immediately steps back into F3 for a second until the puck comes free. Folks, Jay Woodcroft said he is not afraid to play this line against anyone. If it is me, Mcleod gets Eichel for the rest of this series.

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Game Five Observations

Pretty simple here. Can the Oilers do all of this again in back-to-back games? If they can, the chances of a win are dramatically higher. The biggest question for game five is what the defence pairings look like. A Nurse suspension will require the Oilers forwards to be even more committed to the great work they did last night.
Also, play Mcleod on Eichel.
That’s it for today’s review. Comments always welcome here or @bcurlock on the Twitterverse.

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