Edmonton can’t beat the team they want to beat most

Edmonton can’t beat the team they want to beat most

With all apologies to the Vancouver Canucks, actually, no, no one should ever apologize to the Canucks for anything. They know what they are and what they’ve done. While they may be on top of the Pacific Division, the other teams in that division are still going to measure themselves against the Vegas Golden Knights. They hold the hardware, they’ve been the main obstacle for most of their existence, and that’s just how this works.

Especially the Edmonton Oilers, who watched maybe their best chance at a Cup since 2006 get vaporized by the Knights last year in the second round. EdMo held leads in both Game 5 and Game 6 against Vegas last spring, and dropped both to lose the series. They haven’t really gotten over it.

Which gave a regular-season game in February Tuesday night, normally the absolute nadir of the hockey season doldrums, a little more spice. What gave it the level of spice that makes celebrities cry on Hot Ones is that the Oilers were carrying a 16-game win-streak into it, and going for a tie of the record of 17. With an already playoff-proofed rivalry installed, Tuesday night’s encounter was about as much of a can’t-miss-TV as hockey can get in the dead of winter.

Sadly for the Oilers, it went just about how last spring did:

Oilers @ Golden Knights 2/6 | NHL Highlights 2024

The stats will say that the Oilers played pretty well. They outshot the Knights on their own patch. They had more attempts and chances at even strength, even when adjusted for the score and venue. And heavily so. But all that and three bucks gets you on the bus when you don’t get two points. And the Knights won’t care about the details when they won exactly how they win when the games matter most.

The Oilers lost Tuesday night because the Knights were able to shrink the ice, especially after they took the lead a minute and a half into the third period. The Oilers can kill you from multiple spots when they get room to run. The Knights were happy to let them get over their blue line, but then they consistently faced a wall of three, some five feet inside the Vegas zone with the other two forwards crashing in hard from behind to take away time to make plays or passes. It looked like this a lot of the time:


Above this, the Knights ran essentially a tight 1-1-3 trap for most of the third, shuttling any Oilers puck carrier to one side and denying them the runway they require to attack. A team can’t stand up McDavid and Draisaitl right at their line, because any slip is going to mean death. But do so just inside the zone and there isn’t that room behind before they’re just shunted into the corner and behind the net. The Oilers are a decent forechecking team, but they still heavily lean on carrying the puck in far more than they want to dump it in. And dumping it in against the Knights is usually a road to ending up with nothing but a handful of yourself.

Even while trailing for almost all the third, the Oilers produced only 0.59 xG at even strength, after 0.85 in the 1st and 1.21 in the second. When they needed a goal most they were farthest from it.

What will further grate the Oilers more is that the Knights’ winning goal came off their own forecheck, with Darnell Nurse getting horsed in the corner by bottom-six winger Paul Cotter:

Oilers @ Golden Knights 2/6 | NHL Highlights 2024

When observers worry that Nurse never took the leap he seemed destined for, this is the kind of thing they mean.

Why that will touch a special nerve in Edmonton is this is what playoff hockey tends to look like. There will be large swaths of games where the Oilers can’t turn it into a 4×100, especially should they see Vegas in Round 1, which is how it’s lining up. They’ll have to fight for space and outwork the Knights in the corners in both zones to open up things. And even though they did it OK Tuesday night, it wasn’t enough, especially when Aiden Hill played as well in the Vegas net as he did. The Oilers can’t count on Stuart Skinner out-dueling Hill over six or seven games. The 18 skaters will have to do it. And in a game with some history riding on it, and with more than a modicum of emotion on it too, they didn’t.

The Oilers will be stewing on that one until April.

Original source here

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.