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Kings will pose real challenge to high-flying Oilers

Leon Draisaitl Anze Kopitar Edmonton Oilers Los Angeles Kings Leon Draisaitl Anze Kopitar - The Canadian Press

Do the Los Angeles Kings have the weaponry to slow down the Edmonton Oilers and pull off a first-round upset? It’s a question increasingly on my mind as I study this matchup, a series I still think favours Kris Knoblauch’s team.

Edmonton is my Stanley Cup selection for several reasons, weighed heavily by how impressive the top end of their lineup continues to be, and aided by the Oilers avoiding the one team (Vegas, who after a weekend loss has to work through the Central Division gauntlet) they match up poorly against until at least round three.

There is an awful lot to like about the horsepower on this Oilers team, and though they are not without blemish – I fear every moment Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci are on the ice together, as one example – they have an offensive machine that can erase an awful lot of mistakes.

While I think most Oilers fans would have preferred drawing the Kings over the Golden Knights in round one, this is still a difficult opponent. Los Angeles will pose a real challenge for Edmonton’s offence, as the Kings are bringing one of hockey’s best defensive teams into this matchup – one that finished third best in the NHL in all situations goals against (2.5 per 60), and fifth at even strength.

The Kings have the two-way forwards – headlined by the venerable Anze Kopitar and supplemented by types like Kevin Fiala, Quinton Byfield, Phillip Danault, Adrian Kempe, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Trevor Moore – you need to drive meaningful defensive results, and their insulation of goaltenders Cam Talbot and David Rittich this season was incredible.

It’s also worth pointing out this Kings team did have some success against the Oilers, albeit on a limited basis.

Edmonton won three of the four head-to-head games (one via shootout), but their scoring rates were a fair bit under regular-season averages. Consider Edmonton’s offensive results against Los Angeles relative to what they did against the rest of the league:

Expected goal rates weren’t nearly as variant, but we are still talking about double-digit slippage in both measures, and this is all-situations data that includes the Oilers’ ferocious power play – one that scored three times against Los Angeles during the regular season.

The Oilers have such a reliably great power play that it’s hard to imagine Los Angeles meaningfully slowing them down when they are on the man advantage. The Kings’ best hope would be a very disciplined, very loosely called series that limits Edmonton’s opportunities.

It’s a different story at even strength, and there’s understandably going to be a lot of attention paid to matchups. I wanted to look at how Jim Hiller and the Kings’ coaching staff has tried to grind the Oilers down during the regular season. When you’re playing Edmonton, you figure out the McDavid matchup and the rest falls into line.

The below table shows the Kings’ deployment versus the McDavid line across those four regular-season games:

The Kings tried a sea of forwards across their top nine to slow McDavid down – the first pair of games saw a much heavier dose of players like Danault and Moore, but Kempe, Kopitar, and Byfield saw a significant percentage of head-to-head minutes against Edmonton’s top line. I do wonder, especially when Los Angeles gets home ice in games three and four, if we see a heavy skew back towards Danault – if only to free up some of the more premium offensive minutes for Kopitar and company against the other three Oilers lines.

Defensively, you can rest assured it’s going to be a heavy serving of Drew Doughty. Doughty was deployed against McDavid at a religious level, and the Kings are going to need a throwback performance from their 34-year-old blueliner if they have a chance at pulling off this upset.

It’s not an upset I foresee. But I think we are going to learn a lot about the total strength of this Edmonton lineup from their first-round series, with a watchful eye towards a possible second-round draw against the high-flying Vancouver Canucks.

Data via Natural Stat Trick,, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference