It’s difficult to understate how dominant Ryan Getzlaf has been in the second round of the NHL playoffs, and especially at even-strength. Through four games, the Anaheim Ducks captain has put up seven points at evens, which is one point more than any member of the Oilers has in those minutes over the entirety of Edmonton’s playoff run.
That this is a problem for the Oilers is obvious. The solution to it is less so.
Game 4 was the point where things really fell apart for Edmonton. Getzlaf recorded four points against the Oilers, and at even-strength alone his line had 12 good chances to score. Ominously, he was mostly dominant against Edmonton’s best defence pairing and top checking line.
Ducks coach Randy Carlyle made good use of his team’s control of the faceoff circle (the Oilers have won less than 40 percent of faceoffs in the series) to determine the forward matchups, but he didn’t need any dirty tricks on the goal-scoring plays. Getzlaf and company cut right through the players assigned to contain them.
A soft turnover by Jordan Eberle, thanks in part to a lack of support from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Milan Lucic, led to the first goal for Getzlaf’s line in Game 4. Oscar Klefbom made a bad play at the blue line and then was caught hapless on the setup pass for goal two. Eberle made a bad play at the line, followed by some shoddy defensive work by Adam Larsson, until finally Nugent-Hopkins made the fatal turnover on the third marker. Finally, Larsson made the poor clearing play that resulted in the overtime winner for the Ducks.
Oilers fans may argue, with some justification, that the officials had a hand in the first and fourth goals. That doesn’t change the reality that Edmonton’s defensive structure failed on all four occasions, as well as many others in the game.
In combination, that’s a series of avoidable mistakes made by the line which did such a nice job of shutting down Joe Pavelski in the first round. It’s a series of mistakes for Edmonton’s best homegrown defenceman, Klefbom as well as for Larsson, the defensive specialist acquired at dear cost last summer.
It isn’t clear that there’s a personnel solution here for the Oilers. The most popular switch would be to bring in someone else for Eberle, bumping the struggling right wing to a lesser line, but there aren’t a lot of obvious candidates. Zack Kassian would bring size but he’s never been a great puck possession player; Drake Caggiula would bring hustle but lacks experience. Third-line pivot Mark Letestu is already stretched too thin in multiple roles.
Whatever tweaks coach Todd McLellan makes, they’re going to be tweaks. The difference is going to have to be made up in better performances from mostly this same group of players.
One thing that would help is strength at the defensive blue line. On both the second and third goals in Game 4, Anaheim defencemen had no trouble carrying the puck over Edmonton’s blue line; this is a problem that extends to several of the scoring chances that didn’t end in goals. There’s no reason Sami Vatanen should be allowed to carry the puck in one-on-three, no reason that Josh Manson should be permitted to enter the zone entirely unchallenged.
Better puck management is vital, too. Seven of those dozen scoring chances saw the Oilers go from having clear possession to turning the puck over to the Ducks. Sometimes that’s going to mean better support from linemates, creating clear passing options. In other cases, it’s going to mean eating pucks along the boards or not taking a shot if a block would result in an outmanned situation the other way.
These are all correctable errors. As good as Getzlaf was in Game 4 and has been all playoffs, he and his linemates are being given a lot to work with. Edmonton’s best defensive players need to start acting like it, by fiercely defending both the Oilers’ territory and their possession of the puck. Do that and Getzlaf will have to work a lot harder to generate offence.
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