The future has arrived. Despite their youth and inexperience, the Edmonton Oilers acclimated and prevailed against a formidable San Jose Sharks team. Now they’ll have a chance to take down another longtime conference powerhouse.
The headlines proclaimed that the Ducks won in in a sweep, but a read of the fine print reveals a few aspects of the team that are wanting. The Ducks’ defense is limping. Sami Vatanen is banged up, and Cam Fowler is absent. That affects a healthy dose of the Ducks’ playmaking and puck handling from the back end. In these players’ stead, Shea Theodore, Brandon Montour, and Josh Manson all add some positive qualities like mobility, shooting, and physicality, but their lack of experience is evident. The young defensemen make bad decisions about when to step up in the neutral zone. Sometimes they lose their gap. Sometimes they force a pass through the middle when a more pragmatic option is available.
The Flames’ counterattack profited from the Ducks’ turnovers on zone entries and their sloppy passing outside the offensive zone. Even in the Ducks’ own zone, Calgary’s signature players like Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were able to slip through coverage for point-blank looks. As good as goaltender John Gibson was, he did get pulled in Game 3 because he conceded four goals in a period and a half. The Ducks’ defense is not impregnable. Far from it.
How the Oilers exploit the Ducks’ vulnerabilities will be similar to what they did against the Sharks. Like San Jose, Anaheim is going to want to slow the game down. They will want to pound flesh below the circles. Shoot, retrieve, shoot, retrieve. Like the Sharks, they will try to use the space below the goal line. When San Jose had the territorial advantage and tried to wear the Oilers down on the cycle, Edmonton took away passing lanes in the slot and and forced them to the outside. Shooting lanes were denied with active sticks. When the puck entered the home-plate area, Edmonton did an excellent job of boxing out and scooping the puck out for a clear. With a lot of speed at wing and center, Edmonton can afford to clear the puck and let their forwards chase it.
The Oilers were able to win two types of games in Round one: a 1-0 and a 4-3. That versatility is noteworthy for when the Ducks try to gum things up. If you are Anaheim head coach Randy Carlyle and you watch this shorthanded goal you are terrified.
Three forwards drifting in the wrong direction, a defender flat-footed. It comes on a special teams but this will apply to the Ducks on the rush and cycle. They are one errant bounce from McDavid going coast to coast. This might mean keeping a third forward higher on the ice when McDavid is out there and having the defense stationed closer to the blue line. They should guard against McDavid’s quick-strike ability, even if it weakens the offensive-zone pressure. This is especially true in Edmonton where the Ducks won’t have last change and the Kesler line won’t necessarily be seeing consistent shifts versus McDavid.
The Sharks held McDavid and Draisaitl relatively in check, and the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins line with wingers Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle failed to register a single even-strength goal. Scoring came from surprising players like Zach Kassian and David Desharnais.
The Ducks want to replicate that success against the Oilers’ top-six forwards. They can achieve that through matchups and also if their transition matches the Oilers in manpower and individuals track their man closely. The Oilers have several players who can create separation, but if the Ducks’ forwards and defense stay in front of them and shut down the passing lanes, goaltender John Gibson is capable of making the initial save. A quick clearing of the zone, even if the puck is going to no one, would give the Ducks’ defense time to reassemble and prevent a cycle goal off a failed rush attempt.
For how ludicrously good Connor McDavid is, the Sharks did a good job bottling him up. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is a very good, technically sound defender, and San Jose ran some good tight-checking coverage on him with some of their skill and energy guys. The Ducks don’t have Vlasic, but Hampus Lindholm is a powerful skater with good size. And Lindholm will have the Ryan Kesler line supporting him. Playoff Kesler is always straddling the line of sanity, and without question he’ll be revved up, trying to bowdlerize McDavid and get in his head.
Add in Kesler’s linemate Andrew Cogliano and his speed, along with Jakob Silfverberg and his smarts, and the McDavid line will have its work cut out for them engineering scoring chances. McDavid can be his own worst enemy with his unselfishness, which is fine if he’s dishing the puck to Draisaitl, but otherwise can be infuriating.
Digression: McDavid’s speed is so pronounced that the opponent’s defense sags like aging skin, and his vision enables him to manipulate the defense to his liking. However, McDavid alone is a singular force on the rush. He has a very quick release on his shot and does so in stride. After he shoots, he has such great burst to the retrieval he virtually always recovers the rebound. He needs to shoot way, way more. If McDavid plays more selfishly, the Oilers’ chances of winning increase.
The Ducks are going to have a heavy forecheck. That is their bread and butter. They take good angles to the puck and leave an imprint of their physicality. It isn’t always pretty, but they will the puck toward the net and thrive off rebound chances.
Edmonton’s Oscar Klefbom is a strong, mobile skater, and Darnell Nurse exhibited some of his vaunted speed in the first round. But aside from those two, the Oilers’ defense is on the slower side and should be losing races to the puck along the half-wall and below the goal line. The Edmonton forwards do a really good job assisting the defense on zone exits and in their defensive shell in their own zone, but the Ducks absolutely have an opportunity to exploit the likes of Adam Larsson, Kris Russel, Andrej Sekera, and Matt Benning.
Oilers Goaltender Cam Talbot was superb in the first round, so the Ducks need to bring as much traffic to his sight line as possible. The Ducks aren’t a team that is going to make fantastic east-west passing plays along the goal line, which means they need to win those battles in front of the net after the initial shot. The Sharks couldn’t manufacture substantial second, third, and fourth shot opportunities in front of the net. But jamming, hammering, flourishing in the muck is the essence of Ducks hockey. Unlike San Jose, the Ducks are also finding scoring across all four lines. The Ducks are embracing some of the Sharks’ strategies, the difference is that their stars are reasonably healthy and playing valuable hockey.
The Ducks showcased a lot of flaws in Round 1. They will be slower than Edmonton. The Ducks commit a lot of turnovers and will be exposed to speedy counterattacks, which could be deadly if they have too many lead-footed defensemen playing. And the fact that their basic strategy is to do what San Jose did but score more goals is slightly discomforting.
But, damn it, Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler just win this time of the year. When Getzlaf scores a game winner off Lance Bouma’s foot, that is not predestined. It is just an outcome. The Ducks subscribe to a brand of self-reliance where they can spread their aging stars out onto three lines with the help of Antoine Vermette and Ondrej Kase and it works. Partly this is because of their penchant for making plays in tight spaces and their anticipation of the play developing. The Oilers are young and for each round the stakes elevate. Pressure builds. They will be experiencing physical and mental attrition soon. The Blackhawks are ousted. This is the Ducks time.
Ducks in seven