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Travis Yost: Three takeaways as the Oilers return home with a split – TSN.ca

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The glass-half-full assessment of Edmonton splitting the first two games in Dallas is straightforward: So long as Kris Knoblauch’s team can protect home ice, they will be representing the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.

The glass-half-empty assessment? It feels like the Oilers could have, perhaps even should have, won both games. Their opponent here is no slouch – the Stars regular season was extremely impressive, and since then they’ve knocked off both Vegas and Colorado, two of the best teams in the league. Dropping games at home to this Dallas lineup is entirely possible.

So, what do we make of the split down in Dallas? I have three key takeaways, focusing on Stuart Skinner, the Oilers’ power play, and an unrelenting weak point on the blueline.

Skinner’s rebound

It wasn’t two weeks ago we were staring down the barrel of a looming goaltending crisis in Edmonton, with Skinner struggling and the team turning to backup Calvin Pickard.

Though this Oilers team has felt like a championship contender for a few seasons now, goaltending worries have rarely abated. Skinner having a couple of rough games this postseason dialled up the fear factor – he wasn’t great against Los Angeles, and a couple of stinkers against Vancouver sounded some early alarm bells.

It’s been a different story so far against Dallas. Skinner has been much more good than bad, and again, the Oilers – with their typically ferocious offence – do not need elite goaltending to win games. They just need reliability.

Skinner has been fantastic in the third round, and with this type of goaltending you would expect Edmonton’s lineup to be able to win both games. Skinner conceded just four goals total (93 per cent stop rate) in Dallas, but that doesn’t necessarily do his play justice.

Adjusting for the difficulty of shots faced, Skinner’s erased more than three goals from the ledger in the first two games of the series – a marked difference from what we saw in his previous 10 playoff games:

Power play problems for Edmonton

There may be no unit feared more around the league than the Oilers first power-play unit. Taking penalties against Edmonton tends to be a death sentence, and even teams with great defensive structure and quality goaltending know this.

The Oilers have averaged a staggering 11.2 goals per 60 minutes played up a man over the past four seasons. That’s not just best overall, it’s 19 per cent more effective than second-place Toronto over that stretch. Said another way: The only hope to contain Edmonton’s power play is to not take penalties in the first place.

Easier said than done, I know. But playoff hockey can lend itself to looser officiating standards and fewer man-advantage opportunities. That, combined with some favourable penalty killing variance, is what we have seen in the first two games of this series, where the Oilers have totaled just three power-play opportunities – going 0-for-3 in the process.

Oilers fans would argue there has been an unfriendly whistle in the series; perhaps so. But one thing I do know is that an Oilers team without its dynamic power play is a much different – and beatable – opponent.

Over that same four-year period, consider Edmonton’s win rate when they are held scoreless on the power play:

The point is obvious: the more goals any team scores on the power play, the more likely they are going to win a given game. That’s a truism that spans all of hockey. But the gap for Edmonton specifically is staggering – this team is by and large unbeatable when the power play is clicking, and when it’s not, they can be beaten. In fact, Edmonton ends up losing or in score-tied scenarios 57 per cent of the time when the power play is held off the score sheet.

By that singular unit of measurement, perhaps the Oilers are lucky to have split the games in Dallas.

 

Is it Broberg or Stecher time?

In the Vancouver series, I argued Edmonton was at real risk of losing if they continued to deploy the beleaguered Darnell NurseCody Ceci pairing, one that was playing heavy minutes in the process. Though it allowed Edmonton to load up their best unit at even strength, they ended up giving it all back (and then some) when their best players left the ice.

In two games against Dallas, it’s been hard to not notice Ceci’s pairing under siege once more. The Stars forecheck continues to force turnovers, and Ceci’s pairing, by and large, plays to survive their defensive zone minutes as a result — there’s little transition and counterattacking play, but plenty of heart-stopping scoring chances against. Swapping a new partner in (Brett Kulak) for Nurse has not paid dividends.

The Ceci and Kulak pairing here doesn’t get the same premium minutes playing with the Connor McDavid line as, say, the Evan Bouchard pair. And that means much more difficult usage. But they’ve also been facing off against Dallas’ depth players – their most common forward opponents in the series include Evgeni Dadonov, Tyler Seguin, and Mason Marchment by way of example.

And how have these minutes gone? Let’s look at Edmonton with and without the Ceci-Kulak pair:

Those are big splits, and while you don’t have the same performance expectation of this group, you also cannot have a unit of any kind carrying less than 40 per cent of expected goals. Moreover, it’s worth noting that, after splitting the Nurse and Ceci pairing against Vancouver, Nurse’s play has looked better. He’s spent most of this series with Vincent Desharnais.

It is hard to win games when you have a pairing getting beat up like this, and to that end, I do wonder if Kris Knoblauch makes a big change ahead of Game 3 – perhaps drawing in the likes of Philip Broberg or Troy Stecher. Broberg and Stecher are depth defenders and expecting a meaningful change might be a fool’s errand, but the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Enjoy Game 3!

Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey

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