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With the Oilers on the brink of elimination, what must they do to win this series?

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Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
NHL_Sid
1 month ago
Over the past two seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have played eleven games in the second round of the playoffs. They have held the lead at some point in all eleven games, yet they have emerged victorious in just four of them.
As Edmonton trails 3-2 in the second round against the Vancouver Canucks, with each game won by a single goal, it truly feels as if Edmonton has had a genuine chance to win at some point in all five games – but ultimately, that means moot in the playoffs. With margins so razor-thin, a single mistake can cost you an entire game, and for the Oilers, they are making far too many mistakes.
Heading into a critical Game 6, this series has been extremely close in numerous aspects, but Edmonton has several key areas of improvement if they want to win this series. Vancouver is an excellent team, much better than some give them credit for. Still, if Edmonton can make the correct adjustments, the Canucks remain quite beatable, especially without a healthy Thatcher Demko in net.
Here is a breakdown of these critical areas of improvement and how Edmonton still holds a very realistic chance of winning this series in seven games.

Let’s talk about defensive zone breakouts 

In the regular season, I began a manual tracking project to track a variety of advanced statistics not publicly available, and one of these stats was defensive zone exits. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I was not able to get the time to track these metrics in the playoffs – but if you simply watched Game 5, you probably wouldn’t need any data to notice just how poor Edmonton was at breaking the puck out of their own end.
Let’s go through some video.

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Vancouver’s second goal perfectly captures how poor Edmonton was at moving the puck. The play begins with a dump-in by the Canucks, and a sneaky good retrieval by Ekholm, but McDavid fails to pass it out cleanly. As Vancouver attempts to enter the zone a second time, Bouchard initially makes a nifty zone denial but turns the puck over to Vancouver in the NZ. The Canucks dump it in once again, and Ekholm retrieves it once again, but Bouchard makes a five-alarm giveaway, eventually resulting in a goal for Vancouver.
Edmonton had three opportunities to move the puck up the ice. Instead, they botched all three opportunities and allowed a goal.

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In this play, Vancouver does a fantastic job of maintaining possession. There are two opportunities for Evander Kane to clear the zone here, but he botches both, and Elias Lindholm obtains a quality net-front scoring chance. Holloway/Kane eventually get the puck out, but they still fail to make a clean exit, and Vancouver immediately and briefly re-enters the zone. This was a full wasted 50 seconds for Edmonton’s second line.

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Following a NZ faceoff win, Desharnais misses a pass, and ices the puck. On the ensuing faceoff, Garland gets a decent chance. Nurse gets an opportunity to move the puck, but carelessly fails to do so. Vancouver’s forwards do an excellent job along the boards at maintaining offensive zone possession and preventing exits, and this is yet another wasted shift for Edmonton’s second line.

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Edmonton’s final botched breakout of the game put the nail in the coffin. Bouchard and Ekholm initially make a good defensive play on Vancouver’s entry, but notice Hyman and McDavid once Edmonton gains possession. There’s no support from McDavid on the breakout in the NZ, and Hyman gets the puck out of the zone but without possession. Following a poor line change by Ekholm, the Canucks re-enter the offensive zone, and McDavid loses his man, resulting in the eventual GWG by Miller. It was just an awful shift for McDavid.
Zone exits are extremely impactful both ways. A controlled breakout not only gives a team a chance to move the puck up the ice to generate offence but also moves the puck away from the defensive zone. Uncontrolled exits and turnovers grant the opposition another offensive opportunity and are a wasted opportunity to create offence. Consistently botching breakouts will add up and have shown up in Edmonton’s results.
In the regular season, Edmonton played 38 percent of their EV TOI in the defensive zone, ranking in the 87th percentile in the league (in a good way). But in the playoffs, they have declined to 41 percent, ranking in the 56th percentile. As such, their offensive zone TOI percentage has declined from 43 percent to 41 percent. I believe Edmonton’s subpar breakouts are a big reason why, while Vancouver also deserves credit here for their fantastic forecheck.
Now, in my opinion, this was by far Edmonton’s worst game at zone exits in the past two playoffs. It was compounded by the fact that Edmonton’s two best defensive puck-movers in Bouchard and Ekholm mightily struggled, and Edmonton had a severe lack of forward support on breakouts. I expect them to be better in Game 6.
But, this issue is also personnel-related. Ekholm and Bouchard are Edmonton’s only defencemen who excel at passing the puck out of the defensive zone to the forwards. Brett Kulak and Vincent Desharnais are fairly unexceptional in this aspect, Darnell Nurse is strong at skating the puck out of his zone but is quite subpar at passing it under forecheck pressure, while Cody Ceci is one of the league’s most inefficient transitional defencemen.
I would not expect the coaching staff to make this decision, but I would swap out Ceci in favour of Troy Stecher or even Philip Broberg moving forward. I believe it could make a significant difference in how Edmonton’s bottom end of the roster transitions the puck out of their own end against Vancouver’s forecheck.

Edmonton’s struggles with defending the lead

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, this Oilers squad has experienced significant trouble defending leads under two different head coaches.
Here is a look into their numbers at 5-on-5 split into three different score states:
The vast majority of teams often go into a defensive shell when leading, playing much less aggressively offensively, which is why nearly all teams produce worse results when leading in a game compared to their results when they are tied or trailing. But, compared to other teams, the Oilers perform far worse when leading in the playoffs.
When tied, the Oilers hold a 54 percent goal share, with a +3 goal differential solidly ranking 5th among 19 different playoff teams. When trailing, they have a +1 goal differential, which is not great in comparison to other teams, but at the very least, they remain a net positive in that regard.
On the other hand, Edmonton’s -8 goal differential when leading ranks dead last among all 19 teams that have made the playoffs in the past two seasons. Ouch.
To dive deeper, the Oilers interestingly held a solid 52 percent expected goal differential in the 2023 playoffs when leading a game under Jay Woodcroft. But, they ranked 11th out of 16 teams in 5-on-5 save percentage and 14th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage while leading; a lack of finishing and subpar goaltending were major reasons for their loss to Vegas last year.
In the current playoffs, their expected goal differential has declined to an ugly 44 percent. In comparison to 2023, the Oilers are allowing more scoring chances while ahead in a game, while generating far less chances for. I am far from a fan of Kris Knobaluch’s defensive shell.
Under head coach Dave Tippett from 2019 to 2022, Edmonton had major issues with starting poorly in games, but that has not necessarily been the case for the Oilers recently. Edmonton has proven they can consistently score early and start strong, but their issue has been maintaining their leads and finishing games.
Far too often, Edmonton is sitting on a lead, not pushing offensively while spending far too much time in their own end. They can get away with this against a team like the Los Angeles Kings, but against teams like Vegas and Vancouver, who excel at producing quality shots, it is not a wise idea to grant them significant offensive zone time.
This is a critical area for improvement heading into Game 6. Edmonton cannot sit on leads as they have done in their past eleven second-round games.

Room for improvement from the top line at 5-on-5

Following a spectacular start to the playoffs with five assists in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings, McDavid’s 5v5 production has cooled down, with four points at even strength in his past nine games.
Part of this is simply odd luck, as McDavid was on-ice for an additional three even-strength goals that he did not get a point on, and his on-ice 5v5 metrics remain extremely strong.
Some Canucks reporters have pointed out J.T. Miller’s success against McDavid at 5v5, as Vancouver has out-scored Edmonton 2 to 0 when Miller is on-ice against McDavid. But, the Canucks have also been outshot 13 to 24, and out-chanced 14 to 22 in those minutes; McDavid is unlucky not to have scored against Miller’s line yet.
With that in mind, per Meghan Chayka and Stathletes, McDavid directly generated 29 scoring chances in the first round but has been limited to just 13 in the first five games of the second round. He has 0 goals and one assist in Games 3 through 5 in this series. He has clearly not been at his best 5-on-5 in this series thus far.
Alongside the fact that Edmonton’s power play uncharacteristically went 0-for-5, I thought Edmonton’s top line and pairing were their most prominent issues in Game 5. The RNH – McDavid – Hyman line held a brutal seven percent expected goal differential, while the Ekholm – Bouchard pair was at 11 percent.
It has been reported that McDavid and Hyman may be battling injuries, which would explain these results. Still, while they may not be at 100 percent, they should be significantly better in Game 6 than in Game 5, and Edmonton will need them to be better to have any chance of winning this series.

It is well past the time for the third line to produce

I have been a vocal fan of Ryan McLeod’s game for a while. I believe McLeod consistently thrives at subtle areas of the game that many fans do not notice as often, notably breaking up plays in the neutral zone and transitioning the puck up the ice. McLeod’s defensive numbers remain strong in these playoffs, as he has been on-ice for just two goals against at 5-on-5, equating to a fantastic 1.09 goals against per 60 rate that ranks second best on the team.
With that said, no level of defensive play in the world makes up for the fact that McLeod has yet to be on the ice for a single goal in 10 playoff games.
Defensive specialists are extremely useful, and every contender should have them, but these players must still be able to produce a minimum amount of offence. Unfortunately, McLeod has not reached that threshold for two straight postseasons, with 0 points in these playoffs, and 0 goals in his past 23 playoff games.
Of course, a zero percent on-ice shooting percentage is not sustainable over a large sample. Still, the playoffs are a limited sample, and the concern with McLeod is that these shooting percentage slumps occur far too often. As mentioned previously, all five games in this series have been decided by a single goal, and with razor-thin margins, even just one goal from the third line in Games 1, 3 or 5 could have had a significant impact on the outcome. Simply put, he must find a way to produce, as 0 points is unacceptable.
McLeod is not the only culprit and has not received much help. Corey Perry is also yet to be on-ice for a single 5v5 goal, and at 39, it seems that his age and skating is catching up to him. Warren Foegele is also having an awful playoff performance, with just one measly five-on-five point in 10 games. If he does not significantly improve his playoff performance, I would guess it will cost him a contract with Edmonton in 2024-25.
Of the eight teams that reached the second round, here is a look at their goal and expected differential without their top two centers:
As mentioned previously, McDavid must be better at 5-on-5 moving forward. Still, he ranks second among Edmonton’s forwards with a strong 59 percent 5v5 goal differential and ranks second among all players with 18 points in 10 playoff games. If the Oilers lose in 6 or 7 to Vancouver, I would place far, far more blame on Edmonton’s secondary scoring before I place blame on McDavid’s 5v5 offence.
The fourth line has been decent and scored a big goal in Game 5. The major area of improvement for Edmonton’s depth comes from their third line – they have to find a way to produce.

Final Thoughts

May 10, 2024; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Edmonton Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner (74) in the net against the Vancouver Canucks during the first period in game two of the second round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Per Frank Seravalli, Adam Henrique will be coming in the lineup for Corey Perry, while Stuart Skinner will start. 
The goalie decision is a difficult one. Skinner posted a horrendous 0.793 save percentage in Games 1 through 3 of this series, and it is a risk to go back to him. At the same time, while Calvin Pickard played well in Game 4 and was not the primary issue in Game 5, can you give him three straight playoff starts?
There are pros and cons to both sides, but all the Oilers ultimately need is average goaltending. Skinner must be able to provide that.
Knoblauch’s line decisions will be revealed at warmups, and will interesting to see. He reunited McDavid and Draisaitl together on the top line in the third period of Game 5, but in my opinion, they should not be a full-time line in Game 6. It simply makes Edmonton too top heavy, while RNH is far less effective at 2C, and Edmonton does not possess the winger depth to adequately support RNH.
Seravalli’s report also implies it is unlikely there will be any other lineup changes, meaning Cody Ceci remains in the lineup. Edmonton has been out-scored 4 to 10 at 5-on-5 with Ceci on-ice, but without them, they’re up 17 to 13; it is a very risky decision for Knoblauch and Coffey to continue putting reliance on Ceci in a must-win game.
Although it seems that there are multiple evident issues hampering Edmonton at the current moment, don’t count them out.
Game 5 was likely one of the worst playoff games Edmonton’s top players have ever played, and yet the team only lost by a single goal scored with 30 seconds left in the game. Again, every game in this series has been decided by a single goal. Vancouver shouldn’t place their hopes on Edmonton’s power play to go 0-for-5 again, and considering how well the Oilers performed as a whole in Game 4, I would expect Edmonton’s top players to be far better in Game 6. There are multiple key areas to clean up, but the Oilers are absolutely still in this. They were in this exact position against Los Angeles in 2021-22.
Game 6 will be at 6:00 MT tonight. For the first time all season, Edmonton must be able to string together two straight wins against Vancouver.
Find me on Twitter (@NHL_Sid)

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