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'Stay out of the box' — Canucks need to avoid a special teams battle with Oilers

The Canucks will have their hands full not just with the Oilers' red-hot power play but also their perfect penalty kill.
If the battle between Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers and J.T. Miller's Vancouver Canucks is decided by special teams, the Oilers will have the advantage.

Rick Tocchet knows that his team needs to avoid special teams as much as possible against the Edmonton Oilers.

“We can’t get into a penalty fest against Edmonton, let’s face it,” said the head coach of the Vancouver Canucks at the end of the first round. “We can’t give them four, five, six power plays. Hopefully, we’re allowed to play. Let’s play the game five-on-five.”

Part of that statement was in response to the officiating in their first-round series against the Nashville Predators, particularly a crucial call in the final minute of the deciding Game 6. He did add, “That’s on us too,” at the end, but there was a clear message to the officials: put the whistles away and let us play.

That’s a risky request, as the clutching, grabbing, hacking, and hooking that is part and parcel of playoff hockey is as much an impediment to letting the players play as a whistle-happy official calling a dozen penalties.

But there’s a good reason for the Canucks to avoid the penalty box against the Oilers: their power play is electric.

"We have to be on our toes."

The Oilers had the fourth-best power play in the NHL during the regular season, converting on 26.3% of their opportunities. In the first round against the Los Angeles Kings, they got even better, going 9-for-20 for a 45.0% power play percentage.

It’s easy to understand why the Oilers’ power play is so good when you look at their the personnel. There’s Connor McDavid using his speed to gain the zone and his elite talent to quarterback everything from the left side. Evan Bouchard is an elite talent at the blue line with a hard shot and great vision. Leon Draisaitl is a master of scoring from even the most ridiculous angles at the right side. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a great facilitator in the middle with a jack-of-all-trades skillset. And don’t forget Zach Hyman, whose finish around the net garnered him 54 goals this season.

Of course, if those five players stayed in those positions the entire time, then game-planning against the Oilers’ power play would be much more manageable — still challenging, but manageable. But they don’t; the Oilers throw a lot of different looks at the opposing penalty kill with plenty of motion and rotation.

“I think they’re a concept team,” said Tocchet about the Oilers’ power play. “They have three or four things that they do really well. I don’t think they have a huge playbook; they’re just good at what they do. It’s important that we know what their looks are and where we want to be in these situations. Who do we want to have the puck in a less dangerous situation — because they’re going to get their looks.”

“They give you a lot of different looks and the one underrated thing they do is they attack,” said Tocchet on another occasion. “Everybody talks about star power, but it’s more their concepts and they go to the net hard. We have to be on our toes to counter that.”

"The confidence is there. We're a confident group."

The special teams battle is crucial for the Canucks because that’s where the series between the Kings and Oilers was decided.

At 5-on-5, the series between the Kings and Oilers was a deadheat at 12 goals apiece. The difference was that the Oilers scored nine goals on the power play and the Kings didn’t score any — the Oilers’ penalty kill was perfect. It’s easy to see why the Oilers dispatched the Kings in just five games.

Heck, two of the Oilers’ 5-on-5 goals were practically power play goals, scored immediately after Kings players left the box. 

Consider Game 4 of their series: the Kings dominated at 5-on-5. Shot attempts were 71-to-34, shots on goal were 33-to-12, and high-danger chances were 14-to-4 in favour of the Kings. But the Oilers got the game’s only goal on a second-period power play to earn the win.

The dominance of the Oilers’ power play was even more impressive given that the Kings had one of the best penalty kills in the NHL during the regular season. They finished second behind only the Carolina Hurricanes with an 84.6% penalty kill, far better than the Canucks’ 79.1%. 

That said, the Canucks’ penalty kill did get better as the season progressed. They had a run in March where they allowed just two power play goals in ten games. They killed off 14 straight penalties to end off the regular season, then allowed just two power play goals on 22 opportunities in their first-round series against the Predators.

“I think the last month or six weeks has been really [good],” said Tocchet. “I think the system and the details that we cleaned up — I think we’re better at clearing pucks than we were six weeks ago, I think that’s gonna help against these guys. We make sure that if we get a puck, we’ve got to get it down, knock off 25 seconds on their power play. 

“The confidence is there. We’re a confident group.”

"If you stay inside the rulebook, you should be fine."

That said, the Canucks can’t afford to give the Oilers 22 power plays. They have to be more disciplined against the Oilers than they were against the Predators. Nikita Zadorov was blunt when asked about the keys against the Oilers: "Stay out of the box. And turnovers."

“It’s always a fine line in the playoffs,” said Zadorov, who toed that line the entire first round with his heavy hits. “You don’t want to give other teams a chance to score a goal, especially their power play is super dangerous. They have world-class skill out there.”

Zadorov doesn’t think it will be too hard to know where the line is during the second round, however.

“I mean, there’s a rulebook so if you stay inside the rulebook, you should be fine,” said Zadorov with a smile. “We’ve got two experienced referees today, Steve [Kozari] and Kyle [Rehman], so we’re expecting them to let us play hard but inside the rules, so it’s a fair, hard game.”

Staying inside the rulebook is easier said than done, especially against shift disturbers like Corey Perry.

Pettersson and the power play need to come alive

If the whistles do come out, the challenge for the Canucks won’t just be to stop the Oilers’ deadly power play but to get their own power play off the schneid.

The Canucks managed just two power play goals on 13 opportunities against the Predators in the first round. Certainly, they could complain that they only had 13 opportunities to work with compared to the Predators’ 22, but there were times where the Canucks might have wanted to decline the penalty if they could. Too often the power play sapped the Canucks’ momentum rather than building on it.

Against a red-hot Oilers’ penalty kill, the Canucks’ power play has to find some way to make a difference. It’s too much to hope that neither team gets any power plays, after all, so the Canucks have to make sure that their power play doesn’t get shut out.

The Canucks have the skill to score on the power play, with Quinn Hughes quarterbacking from the point and three dynamic forwards in J.T. Miller, Brock Boeser, and Elias Pettersson, but nailing down that fifth member of the group has been an issue. This series would be a good time for Elias Lindholm to lock down that final spot on the first unit.

Of course, Pettersson finding his game would also help. The Canucks’ franchise forward was held goalless in the first round and either passed up on prime shooting opportunities on the power play or couldn’t finish when he did pull the trigger. 

If Pettersson can get back in a groove, it would go a long way toward cracking the Oilers’ perfect 100% penalty kill.