For Edmonton, the Season Comes Down to the Power Play
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Tonight, the Carolina Hurricanes come home to Raleigh with the opportunity to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. The pressure will be enormous, but the ‘Canes have faced any and every challenge during these playoffs with aplomb,so there’s little reason to believe that will change now. Only one team, the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs,has come from 3-1 down to win the Cup. If the Oilers are to join them, they’ll need to break a very impressive Hurricanes streak. Since they fell behind 2-0 in their first round series with the Montreal Canadiens, Carolina has not lost consecutive games.
The Oilers of the late 1980s won five Stanley Cups, and in the process set numerous scoring records that may never be broken, even in the new “offense-first” NHL. But unlike that team of legends, which scored virtually at will, this year’s Oilers have relied mostly on grit and hustle rather than abundant skill. For supporting evidence, one need look no further than thirdline winger Fernando Pisani’s teamleading 10 playoff goals.
One huge problem that plagued the Oilers, particularly in the series’ first two games, was their inability to win faceoffs against Carolina center Rod Brind’Amour.After Game 2,Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish made some necessary adjustments, most notably matching veteran center Michael Peca against Brind’Amour, and the Oilers’ success rate in the faceoff circle has improved dramatically.Brind’Amour takes a huge percentage of the ‘Canes’ draws, and he won 82% (28 of 34) in Game 1. But by Game 4, the Oilers had him figured out, winning 20 of 28 draws against Brind’Amour and 39 of 56 overall.
Another concern for the Oilers was their defensive lapses. They surrendered a tremendous number of odd-man rushes to the ‘Canes, mostly in Game 2, and hardly resembled the disciplined team that became the first eighth seed to reach the Cup Finals. But MacTavish has gotten the blueliners to tighten things up as the series has progressed, and they gave up only three goals in Games 3 and 4 combined.
So how, if MacTavish addressed the team’s biggest concerns, have they nonethless fallen into this 3-1 hole? Some might point to Chris Pronger’s errant clearing attempt that led directly to Mark Recchi’s Game 4-winning goal. But blaming the Oilers’ best player for a rare mistake would be foolhardy. One player’s misstep, no matter how egregious, can never be the sole reason for a team’s loss. And it’s certainly fair to say that the Oilers would not have gotten this far – or even close – without Pronger’s 30 minutes of rock-solid defense every night.
Instead, the answer to the Oilers’ struggles begins and ends with their power play,and its lack of potency.In the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Oilers compiled an impressive 20% success rate with the man advantage; it was a key reason why they were able to upset three higher-seeded teams. But against Carolina, the power play’s performance has been nothing short of atrocious, tallying only one goal in 25 tries.
Interestingly, the Oilers are suffering from exactly the same problems that plagued the Rangers in the season’s final weeks. But the striking difference between the Cup Finalists and the Blueshirts is that the Oilers actually have the personnel needed to comprise a successful power play.
The Rangers’ problem was that they became too dependent on Jaromir Jagr when playing with the man advantage, and lacked the necessary complementary components that would have turned their power play into one of the NHL’s best. The biggest void existed on the point, where they lacked a player whose slap shot from the point would inspire fear in opposing shot-blockers. Improbably, Michal Rozsival was the Blueshirts’ best option, and that goes a long way toward explaining why the Rangers faltered down the stretch.
But the Oilers have two players – Pronger and Jarret Stoll – who boast booming shots that have been effective all season and throughout the playoffs’ first three rounds. The problem for Edmonton, instead, is a simple failure to execute. In Game 4, they had a 5-on-3 advantage for more than a minute in the first period. In this series, leads have proven to be mission critical, and this represented a great opportunity for the Oilers to take control of the game.
Unfortunately, MacTavish’s troops consistently fumbled the puck around the perimeter and never seemed particularly focused on the task at hand: setting up Pronger and Stoll for one-timer slap shots. And with the stingy ‘Canes defense keeping Edmonton’s finesse forwards out of goaltender Cam Ward’s sight lines, the Oilers generated precious few high-quality scoring chances on that power play, or any others they received in Game 4.
Look for the Oilers to deliver another strong effort as they try to send the series back to Edmonton for Game 6.But if their power play doesn’t start clicking, it’s a good bet that Brind’Amour and company will be sipping champagne from Lord Stanley’s Cup when the clock strikes midnight tonight.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.