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Oilers and Canucks in Round 2 a study in contrasts

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Hello, from deep in the heart of “enemy territory”.

As a lifelong Oilers fan, former season ticket holder and as someone who has covered the NHL professionally in Alberta, living in British Columbia during this Canucks playoff run offers unique perspective.

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The fans of the two hockey teams are as different as their respective cities. And indeed, as different as these two teams. And now, the only two surviving Canadian NHL franchises go head-to-head.

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That and more on in this edition of…

9 Things

9. I am predicting the Oilers over Vancouver in 6 games. If. If Thatcher Demko is still hurt and cannot play. If Demko can go, then Edmonton in 7. A healthy Demko is a Top 5 (maybe top 3) goalie in the NHL. And with all due respect to the guys who helped Vancouver beat Nashville, none of them are Demko. I am not sure Stuart Skinner is better than him. But I do think Skinner can be better than what Vancouver can replace Demko with.

8. But goaltending is not likely to be the deciding factor in this series. I think if the Oilers best players are better than the Canucks best, the Oilers will prevail. I believe Edmonton the best team. But that counts for a big heap of nothing if those players can not go out and prove it. Quinn Hughes is a Top 5 NHL D-man. Elias Pettersson is an incredibly talented offensive guy. Brock Boeser and J.T. Miller are terrific. But until they go out and triumph it in a post-season series again the likes of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and Evan Bouchard?

7. It is the same sport. Yet, hockey feels different depending on which city you are in. In Vancouver, the excitement over the Canucks is palpable. You see it everywhere, in a bar, a restaurant, a subway car or on a ferry. But in B.C. it is debatable what the biggest sport is. Soccer is massive here. And due to the weather, there are so many other choices and distractions. Whereas in Edmonton, where I have done formal market research so do not let anyone kid you, nothing matches the Oilers. Everyone else is 3rd. In short: The real difference is in the rabidity of the fanbase. In Vancouver, the Canucks are a passion. In Edmonton? The Oilers are a religion.

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6. Somewhat lost in the success that Edmonton enjoyed in their win over the Kings was the effectiveness of the Oilers 3rd pairing. It has been substantial leap for Vincent Desharnais who is playing his best hockey. That may surprise some doubters. But surely, we cannot be taken aback by yet another strong playoff performance by Brett Kulak. Every time someone would suggest trading Kulak and playing young Philip Broberg instead, I would think back to how good Kulak has been in the playoffs. And here he is doing it yet again. And as a pair, Kulak and Desharnais are taking on meaningful minutes…not just 10-ish a night. They are real, impactful depth.

5. Derek Ryan made win-preserving defensive plays in both Games 4 and 5. It is such a plus to have a taxi squad with battle-tested veterans on it. A 5th “line” of Ryan, Connor Brown and Sam Gagner would be many teams’ 4th line. That trio of vets has well over 2,000 games of NHL experience between them. Add in the experience of Jack Campbell and Troy Stetcher and the Black Aces are deeper still. You never know when an illness or injury will force a coach to alter his approach. What is the old saying? Having a plan is all fine and good until you get punched in the face? The Oilers also added a bunch of other AHL’ers to the roster yesterday. Good for them. But if they play, something else had gone badly.

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4. If I were to pick an MVP from the Edmonton Oilers over the first series of this post-season it would be Leon Draisaitl. He has brought his two-way game to a new level and was an absolute beast against L.A. The best player in the series, and maybe in the entire league in the first round. That is not to say that other Oilers did not have excellent performances. Zach Hyman had 7 goals. Connor McDavid was Connor McDavid. Evan Bouchard silenced some critics with solid defensive work and brilliant offensive results. Stuart Skinner came through. But no one touched more aspects of the game in a positive and impactful way over that series than Draisaitl. He is a key cog in a devastating power play. He is the club’s top faceoff man. He can impact the PK when most other top players do not.

3. It was announced this week that Sports 1440 had rounded out its on-air lineup and is now a 24-7 Sports/Talk station for Edmonton. It was smart of them to grow gradually. Talk is the most expensive format in radio. Being a non-rated station, it has little chance at any substantial national advertising. But run on local retail revenue with contracted employees, it has a chance. Its a good thing for sports fans in Edmonton. In their wisdom, Bell abandoned TSN and in the process it’s loyal audience. Now, there is a place for them to gather again. Some complain that a lot of the 1440 programming is not local. But you need to appreciate the unique hard costs of the format. Without some network programming, debits would soon overwhelm credits. Continued good luck to the folks there. They are serving the community well. And as I always say…all radio is good.

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2. With the Canucks last-minute, series-clinching win over Nashville on Friday night the Oilers second round opponent was set in stone. Like many people, I believe that Edmonton is the favorite in this series. I have seen probabilities as high as 70%. But in my very next breath, I will say that I already underestimated Vancouver once this season and so I do not plan on falling into that trap again. The Canucks finished ahead of the Oilers in the regular season by 5 points. They did so for a reason. They were the more consistent team all year long. The Oilers were out-classed not just once but twice by the Canucks early in the season, lost the 4-game season series and were out-scored by them 21-7. You might say that this is a different Edmonton team now, and I would wholeheartedly agree. And I do not believe the Canucks are in the Oilers heads in the slightest. But I do think that regular season performance gives Vancouver something vital at this time of the year: Belief in themselves. And that is a very dangerous thing indeed.

1.I had a chat with a few people this week on the grading of player performances. It is of course something we have done for years at The Cult of Hockey. And we are very appreciative of the loyalty and appetites out readers have for our content. Thank you! Those conversations eventually led to how anyone might assess fault on goals against. And let me first say that this is somewhat subjective. It is not uncommon for even seasoned NHL coaches to see a play differently. I should also add that when I played, I was a defenseman. My views will be influenced by that fact. I suspect if you gave them truth serum, old goalies would concur. Etcetera.

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I think a lot of fans see fault in D-men on a play because they are one of the last lines of defence on the ice. Too seldom is the context of the supporting forwards on the play weighed and considered. Because when assessing danger, defencemen do not just need to be aware of where the various attackers are on the ice. They will also read and react off the positioning of the high forward on their own team. So, as an example, if it appears the Oilers F appears to have recognition on the play, the Edmonton D-man will read and react accordingly.

Thinking back to the Oilers clinching Game 5 and the 2-1 goal. Some fans will have seen Darnell Nurse “pinch” at the blueline and hand out fault. But in that situation, the D-man will have read where his high F was. Confident that they will fold back, he can then close on his check. In those situations, most coaches will say “Make sure you get either the puck or the man”. And Nurse got his man. There is a low expectation he will be able to also intercept the puck in a situation as fluid as that. Anyone who has actually played the position will understand that.

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That is why it is the job of the high F to cover the area where the puck is being chipped to. It makes me a bit nuts when people suggest Darnell Nurse should defend passively all the time. He is an elite skater. Nurse does not and should not defend the same as (say) Vincent Desharnais (playing great, but does not have close to Nurse’s boots) does unless protecting a lead late. Not all D-men are created equal. They are not robots on some white board. You play to your strengths. Darnell’s is how fast he can close a gap.

Ryan McLeod, as much as I like the player and his own defensive instincts, had poor recognition on that play and as a result failed to pick up the free man. Matters were made worse by a poor line change on Edmonton’s part. Well…bing, bang, boom…it was 2-1. I assessed fault at 80-20 for McLeod and Nurse respectively and then adjusted the player grades in my Game Grades article that night.

Darnell Nurse is a more than a bit of a lightening rod. He attracts more criticism than he deserves. And we do not always see his numbers or play filtered within the context of the quality of competition he faces. In short: You will make more mistakes playing more often against more talented opposition.

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Furthermore, it is relatively rare for any goal against to be the fault of just one single player. Hockey is a team game. Multiple factors surround each play. I do not dispute that Nurse’s decision impacted that goal. It just was not the primary reason for it.

The ebbs and flow of any hockey game are often a result of how those teammates work together.

Or…don’t.

Now on Threads @kleavins. Also, find me on Twitter @KurtLeavins, Instagram at LeavinsOnHockey, and Mastodon at [email protected]. This article is NOT AI generated.

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