McDavid minutes will decide Oilers-Kings series
And then, the floodgates opened in Game 4.
Perhaps the most compelling first-round matchup of the NHL playoffs so far has featured the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, a series locked at two games apiece after Zach Hyman’s overtime winner on Sunday night. It’s a series many observers – and the betting markets, for that matter – did not think would be as close or as competitive as it has been.
How has this series been so close, especially in a four-game stretch where the Oilers have nearly a 50-shot advantage over the three-seed Los Angeles? The first answer is a simple one: Kings goaltender Joonas Korpisalo has been sensational in stretches, and has certainly outplayed his Oilers counterpart Stuart Skinner. Korpisalo has stopped 92 per cent of shots and has erased three goals from the ledger versus expected; Skinner, on the other hand, has stopped just 88 per cent of shots and has conceded two goals more than expected.
The second answer is where I think the bigger story is, and how the rest of this series will be decided: the Connor McDavid minutes.
When I said the floodgates opened in Game 4, I meant it. Before Leon Draisaitl’s goal at 9:41 of the second period, the Oilers were being outscored 3-0 at 5-on-5 in the minutes with McDavid’s unit on the ice. Any player can carry a negative goal differential over a handful of games, but it is extraordinarily rare to keep McDavid and his teammates off the scoring sheet for that length of time:
Over an average three-game stint this season, McDavid and his linemates were good for three goals, or a goal per game. There were periods during this season where the Oilers were seeing as many as six goals scored over a three-game stretch – look back into a pair of games against the San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes towards the end of March for the most recent example.
But notably, keeping the McDavid unit blanked for just a handful of games is like seeing a total lunar eclipse. You’ll see it, but it’s strikingly rare. And right before the McDavid line put three goals together (by Draisaitl, Evander Kane, and Hyman’s overtime winner) in Game 4, that’s where we were.
How have the Kings slowed the McDavid line down? Again, a lot of this has to do with the play of Korpisalo, who has saved his best goaltending for these crucial minutes – even including the Game 4 surge, Korpisalo is stopping over 94 per cent of shots against the Oilers’ top unit. Kings head coach Todd McLellan hasn’t been shy about his deployment strategy in front of Korpisalo:
I like to look at deployment strategies after a Game 4 because both teams have settled into the series, and both coaches have had chances to experiment with last change and matchup theory. In the case of McLellan and the Kings, there is a clear pattern to get Drew Doughty’s pairing out as much as practically possible against McDavid – Doughty has played more than 50 per cent of his minutes head-to-head with the Oilers phenom. The forward group is even less surprising and is rife with grinders and puck-harassers, headlined by Trevor Moore and Phillip Danault.
Territorially speaking, the McDavid line has beaten up just about every one of these five-man units, though it’s worth pointing out they have had markedly less success on a relative basis against the Anze Kopitar line.
But I think this is where the series is going to be decided. If the Kings’ collection of grinders can turn scoring chances into slightly lesser scoring chances, as they did through the first three games of the series, the McDavid line cannot provide Edmonton the type of lift they have been realizing since the start of the regular season. (And really since the day he was drafted.)
But hockey is still a volume game, and even a responsible Kings team cannot bail water in perpetuity in the defensive zone and expect to win this series. You give players like McDavid enough opportunity, they are going to find the seams. And if they don’t find the seams, they are invariably going to run into some luck by simply having so much time with the puck.
This is a deep enough Edmonton team – with the requisite goaltending, of course – to win a Stanley Cup. But the Oilers are still a team that moves in lockstep with its superstars. It’s been a yeoman’s effort to slow the Oilers’ top unit down by Los Angeles.
Heading into Game 5 on Tuesday night, I’ll be watching to see what McLellan does without matchup control. Game 2 in Edmonton saw a lot of the Danault line versus the McDavid line, and if the series to-date has been any indication, we should expect it again in Game 5.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com, Hockey Reference