The Edmonton Oilers v. The Vegas Golden Knights Game 6: A Tactical Review

Photo credit:Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports
Bruce Curlock
11 months ago
Sad Trombone dot gif. That was the overwhelming impression I got from Oiler fans in the hours after the Vegas Golden Knights closed out the Oilers in the sixth game of their second-round playoff series.
When I write these post-game articles, I mostly do them last in the evening before seeing a lot of commentary online. Today, due to travel reasons, I wasn’t able to get the article done early. While I prefer not to see commentary post-game, I had to admit I peeked. To be honest, I was pretty confused. I heard that the Oilers “were beaten by the better team” or “it wasn’t close from game 5 on,” etc., etc. My confusion steeps from the fact that I didn’t see it that way at all. Especially references to the last two games being some sort of display of dominance by the Vegas Golden Knights. If I remove the third period of the sixth game (score effects reasons) and just use the prior five periods, the Oilers had the 5v5 edge in shot totals at 37-30, high-danger chances at 13-12 and expected goals at 3.17 to 2.39.
This is removing the third period of the closeout game! So I was confused, not about losing (full credit to the Golden Knights), but that there was little commentary that these last two games could have went either way. For me, this game, as with game five was a coin flip. When it is all said and done, I think Oiler fans and pundits might reflect on this series as one that got away, but was not taken away.

What Did I See?

The Draisaitl-Eichel Experiment

Game six was very close. No two shakes about it. As with most playoff games, they are decided on the smallest of margins. In game six, I thought there was one tactical issue for the Oilers that played an outsized role in the Oilers’ loss. The first was the choice of Jay Woodcroft to match Draisaitl on Eichel with RNH and Yamamoto on the wings. This seemed to be an odd choice given that both McDavid and McLeod had both performed well against Eichel at 5v5 in the series. I sent the following tweet after game five mostly about getting Bjugstad away from Eichel, but it gave some information on Mcleod and McDavid.
Given this information, I thought it was curious that Woodcroft went this route. I was further confused after I watched this McDavid shift against Eichel in the first period. This shift came just one shift after a tv timeout. The Draisaitl line had played the prior shift against Eichel and so both were equally rested. Woodcroft leaves McDavid out here primarily I think because he did not play McDavid very much in the first period. Watch this whole clip.

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There was an opportunity for a different match against Eichel, but it wasn’t taken advantage of until too late.
Instead, the Draisaitl line along with Nurse-Ceci got the assignment for about 30 seconds and it was clear in the first period this was going to be an issue. Have a look at these two clips and watch the work of the forward group as a whole. On the first clip, Yamamoto right track through the middle of the ice to the puck carrier. This leaves his right-wing open. When Nugent-Hopkins sees Ceci going back, he has to get to the wall. He doesn’t and consequently, it is a clean turnover with four Golden Knights and only three Oilers in zone. Consequently, the Golden Knights get zone time on a forward group and a defensive pairing not known for their defending.

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The second clip is a tough one to watch for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins fans. Watch how passive he is on this whole shift and how he lets Golden Knight players beat him to spots and gain puck possession. He gets saved on this shift by Vincent Desharnais with a great stick.

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So to me, it was not at all surprising that the Eichel line eventually scored against the Draisaitl group. Here is the first goal against, which had a multitude of issues. First, look at the Vegas entry. RNH is hardback on the check, so Nurse needs to step up. He has Ceci in a good spot and the weakside is covered. Instead, he gives up the line. This is compounded by a very weak play by Nugent-Hopkins to check the puck carrier. Now the Golden Knights are ready to attack. On the second freeze frame, Draisaitl announces by his positioning that he is slot cover. So when the Vegas players rolls up top, RNH stays there. Marsechault rolls down and Draisaitl flat-out misses the assignment. The result is a tie game.

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The second goal against is one I saw Cody Ceci criticized for and I do not see why that is the case. The play starts with a Golden Knights exit and the Oilers handle it perfectly at their blueline. They force the puck carrier to give up the puck and all of the players are marked with Draisaitl coming back hard. Now at the second freeze frame, it all goes south. First, why is this now a 2v1 on Draisaitl? Nurse is the strong side defenceman here. He needs to engage in this play. Instead, he stays on the weak side and really in Cody Ceci’s spot. So what does Ceci do, he reacts and moves to the strong side. Nothing wrong with this if Nurse is not going to do it. Then when the puck comes across for the shot, Nurse, Ceci and Draisaitl all go to the puck and the result is a tap-in goal against. Sure, I would like Ceci to do some things better here, but Darnell Nurse needs to be held to account for this play far more than Ceci.

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In the end, the Oilers could not overcome this tactical issue and the brilliant goaltending of Adin Hill. As I said, playoff games with the top teams are usually decided by the narrowest of margins. The last two games of this series personified that theme. Are the Golden Knights deserving victors? Yes. However, I remain convinced that if they played game six 1o times, the Oilers would likely win at least five games and maybe as many as seven, but for one tactical decision that caused the Oilers a chance at the Conference Finals.
That’s all for this tactical review folks. Obviously, I was hoping to do plenty more for the Oilers this Spring. Sadly, that is all she wrote. Your feedback is welcome here or to @bcurlock on Twitter.

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