NHL playoffs: Oilers need to exploit Golden Knights' one big weakness
This week we look at the Oilers' power play versus the Golden Knights' penalty kill, the Leafs' ice-time allocation, the grinding Hurricanes, and more.
Welcome back to Insights and Observations of the NHL playoffs, where we've seen some surprising early results in Round 2.
This week we look at the Edmonton Oilers' power play versus the Vegas Golden Knights' penalty kill, the Toronto Maple Leafs' ice-time allocation, the grinding Carolina Hurricanes, and the depth of the Seattle Kraken.
Golden Knights' poor penalty killing could be a problem vs. Oilers
The Oilers had a historically great power play that we have talked about throughout the regular season. Moving Tyson Barrie and promoting Evan Bouchard gave them a better shot threat from the point, unlocking even more spacing and opportunity. It was a major factor in the first round, as the Los Angeles Kings killed a shockingly low 43.9% of their penalties. Although the Oilers obviously didn’t score on every single power play, it felt like impending doom would follow any time the Kings took a penalty.
Their reward for winning that series is a matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights, who struggled to kill penalties against a Winnipeg Jets power play that didn’t have nearly the same attack, especially with Josh Morrissey out. The Jets scored on 41.7% of their power-play opportunities.
In Game 1 against the Oilers, the Golden Knights' struggles continued. They killed just one of their three penalties. Edmonton's two power-play goals came with little resistance. The pass on the first goal went right through the house. The second goal came after Bouchard had a clear lane to tee one up and create a rebound with Edmonton outnumbering Vegas in front of the net.
Vegas has struggled to stop power plays all playoffs and ranked 19th in the regular season. In Game 1 they were tentative and that is a death sentence against the Oilers. You can’t watch their top players rip pucks around or else it will end up with you fishing the puck out of the net.
When the Connor McDavid line was off the ice, Vegas had little issue with the Oilers. You can’t stop McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but they can’t have their way with you at 5-on-5 and on the power play. If the Golden Knights can figure out how to be semi respectable on the penalty kill, using their speed to pressure more and take away cross-ice opportunities — which is easier said than done as nobody has been able to do it this season — they have a clear path to victory.
Leafs change up tactics vs. Panthers
It is always interesting to see how teams change their approach come playoff time. Sometimes they even outthink themselves along the way. Let’s look at the ice time difference for Leafs forwards through two games against the Florida Panthers, compared to their average time on ice in the regular season.
Because Matthew Knies left the game early in Game 2, that did impact ice-time allocation, so we won’t include his average. We will, however, include the ice-time totals of Zach Aston-Reese and Sam Lafferty, though they have each only played one game.
It should be noted that because the Leafs essentially turned over half of their forward group, it’s not an exact comparison. But slice it any which way you’d like and this much is clear: the Leafs attempted to run out four lines as much as possible in the regular season.
In Round 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, Alexander Kerfoot was 10th among Leafs forwards in time on ice per game at 14:14, though they did have a bunch of games go to overtime. Against Florida, though? Neither game has gone to an extra period and they have loaded up their top players with heavy minutes. We have seen this movie from Sheldon Keefe before, in which the top players get heavy minutes, fail to score despite getting chances and then lose the series.
Against Tampa, the Leafs started with Ryan O'Reilly on the second line and when it didn’t work after the first game, they moved him down to third-line center to spread out the minutes and wealth. Now against Florida, they lost both at home and are down 0-2, scoring four total goals. With Knies likely done for the series, how are the minutes going to play out moving forward?
Bobrovsky giving Panthers exactly what they needed most
When the 2022 calendar year ended, the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners were on the ropes and sat 23rd in the league in points percentage. They were still able to score, sitting 13th in goals per game, even as they waited for Anthony Duclair to recover from ACL surgery. They were 22nd in goals against per game and 23rd in all strengths save percentage.
Spencer Knight was struggling and would later enter the NHL player assistance program. Sergei Bobrovsky, through the end of 2022, was rocking an .897 save percentage. He’s the second highest paid goalie in the NHL behind Carey Price.
Led by Matthew Tkachuk, the Panthers went on a big run just to make the playoffs. But if they were going to make any noise they would need goaltending. Bobrovsky didn’t even start the playoffs. Instead, Alex Lyon, a 30-year-old journeyman who went on a heater to end the season, started the series against the Boston Bruins and played the first three games. Bobrovsky got the nod in Game 4, but made 44 saves in a winning effort in Game 5. He hasn’t lost since.
Where has this Bobrovsky been all season?
Right now, the conversation is pretty simple: if he can see it, he’s stopping it. His third period in Game 2 against the Leafs was a masterclass as Toronto had a series of odd-man rushes and had clean looks that were continually denied. He is second in the playoffs in goals saved above expected and in seven games has almost matched his regular-season total already.
Hurricanes putting on defensive masterclass
A lot of people, myself somewhat included, wrote off Carolina after Andrei Svechnikov was lost for the season. Then Teuvo Teravainen went down in the first round, adding insult to injury. Even if he wasn’t quite having the type of season we are accustomed to seeing from him, he’s still a good player. The Hurricanes have lost in the second round in three of the past four seasons, which begged the question: why should we take them seriously now?
You can question the star power and whether they have enough game-breakers, but you can’t question how hard they play and how disciplined they are within their system. This segment on NHL Network detailing some of their stick work is excellent.
You can argue, quite easily, that the Hurricanes have the best defense corps remaining in the playoffs. Between Brent Burns, Brady Skjei, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, their top four defense group is excellent and has a bit of everything. Size, skating, dynamic offense, shutdown defense, power-play and penalty-kill specialists. You don’t need to hide anyone.
In their first game against the New Jersey Devils, they held them to a one-shot first period. For context, New Jersey was fourth in the league in shots on net per game.
The Hurricanes, following the identity of their coach, just play a suffocating, relentless style of hockey. They always have a guy high and they almost always have numbers swarming the puck in the defensive zone. On the penalty kill, they are super aggressive and had the second-best percentage in the regular season. To lose two offensive forces and double down on defense, commit to grinding games at a high level, and find success is a testament to everyone in the organization. It’s not flashy and fun, but it’s hard to not respect it.
Kraken proving you don't need superstars to be successful
One of the common debates is the importance of depth versus star power. To that I ask, who is the best player on the Seattle Kraken? Jared McCann did have 40 goals. He was a legitimate top-line producer. But all things being equal, I’d probably argue Vince Dunn, who was a real top-pairing defenseman this season.
But if you look at their series against Colorado, the Avalanche had the three best players in the series and lost. No offense to the Kraken, but they don’t have a single player better than Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen or Cale Makar. But what they did have over Colorado was depth. Matthew Beniers and Jordan Eberle on one line. Jaden Schwartz and Alex Wennberg on the next. Oliver Bjorkstrand and Yanni Gourde on the next. Brandon Tanev is on the fourth line. All are quality NHL players.
Now they are playing Dallas and who are the top players in the series? Jason Robertson? Roope Hintz? Possibly four-goal man Joe Pavelski, too? The Kraken do have talent, we don’t want to take that away from them. Beniers, in particular, has star power, but he’s not fully there just yet.
Philipp Grubauer, as he was as the series went on against the Avalanche, has been great against the Stars, who have produced all sorts of quality looks. But Seattle has been able to trade chances and has been relatively even with both Colorado and Dallas in terms of possession. It is its four-line attack doing the trick.
Every team wants legitimate superstars and they are imperative to winning long-term. The Lightning just had a mini dynasty with all sorts of them. The Avalanche won a Cup on the back of superstars last season, too. But there are other formulas that you can win with. Right now, the Kraken are giving teams trouble with one of them.