2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Stuart Skinner, Vegas Golden Knights

3 Keys to Success for Golden Knights in Second Round vs. Oilers

After the Vegas Golden Knights defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 in Game 5 of their first round series, they punched their ticket to the second round where they are now set to take on the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers beat the Los Angeles Kings in a wildly entertaining six-game series which ended with a game-winning goal from Kailer Yamamoto in the final minutes of the third period, earning their spot amongst the final eight teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Golden Knights were led by Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone, who were tied for the lead in team scoring with eight points and were extremely effective at both ends of the ice. Laurent Brossoit continued his strong run towards the end of the regular season and finished with a .915 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.42 goals-against average (GAA) in the series, making him one of the most valuable players on this Golden Knights roster moving forward.

The Oilers’ offense was led by who else, but Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl is tied for second in playoff scoring behind Roope Hintz of the Dallas Stars with seven goals and 11 points, and McDavid is tied for fifth among remaining playoff players with his teammate Evan Bouchard for ten points. The Oilers’ high-flying offense has continued to roll into the postseason and they lead the playoffs in scoring with an average of 4.17 goals-for-per-game (GF/GP).

With both teams having very different styles of play, the Golden Knights will have to find some unique ways to try and fend off the Oilers’ stars and ultimately win this series. Here are some ways that the Golden Knights will be able to take advantage of the Oilers’ weaknesses and come out on top.

Line Matchups

The Oilers have a lot of flexibility within their top six to put together some dangerous offensive combinations. While it’s going to be tough to limit either of McDavid or Draisaitl’s offensive opportunities wherever they play in the lineup, the strength of Vegas’ depth could force the Oilers’ coaching staff to make some huge adjustments throughout the series.

When they kept McDavid and Draisaitl together on the same unit in Game 6 against the Kings, the Oilers’ second line of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nick Bjugstad, and Zach Hyman had just two shot attempts and allowed 18 at even strength. While they looked solid in Game 5 with Bjugstad picking up two goals on their way to a 6-3 win, the Kings overwhelmed them just two days later and finished with 92% of the expected goals share against that line.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

If McDavid and Draisaitl continue to play together in this series, they will likely match up against the line of Mark Stone, Chandler Stephenson and Brett Howden, who outscored the Jets 5-1 and allowed just 1.68 expected goals against per-60 minutes. They’ve become a really tough unit to play against at both ends of the ice and should play a huge role in this series.

If they are split up, the Golden Knights should still feel confident in the defensive play of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Michael Amadio as a defensive line to be able to handle whatever the second line of the Oilers may look like. 

Staying Disciplined

One of the biggest stories from the regular season was the historic power play performance from the Oilers. They scored on 32.4% of their opportunities in the regular season and surpassed the 1977-78 Montreal Canadiens for the best power play in NHL history. They’ve been even better through their first six playoff games, converting on 56.3% of their opportunities and going nine for 16 in the first round. 

Looking at the Oilers’ top three scorers, five of Draisaitl’s 11, six of McDavid’s 10, and eight of Bouchard’s 10 points have all come on the power play. It’s been their main source of offense throughout the entire season and it could end up being the deciding factor in this series.

One thing that bodes well for the Golden Knights is that they ranked first in penalties taken per-60 minutes during the regular season, and are first in that category in the playoffs as well. However, their play on the penalty kill has been concerning, especially for a team that was so defensively sound throughout the regular season.

They allowed five goals on just 12 power play opportunities against the Jets and now have the worst penalty kill percentage among teams still active in the playoffs, operating at a 58.3% success rate. With both teams being on the complete opposite spectrum in the special teams matchup, the Golden Knights are going to have to do their best to stay out of the box and keep this series at even strength as much as possible. 

Push Stuart Skinner to the Limit

The Golden Knights managed to score at a surprisingly high rate against one of the best goaltenders heading into the postseason in Connor Hellebuyck. He finished with the third-highest save percentage and was also tied for third in wins during the regular season, but finished the playoffs with a .886 SV% and a 3.44 GAA. 

Related: Jets’ 1st Round Loss: What Went Wrong?

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Despite finishing 14th in the regular season with an average of 3.26 GF/GP, the Golden Knights are now fourth in that category through the first round, averaging 3.80 GF/GP. They’ve averaged almost the exact same amount of shots in the playoffs as they did in the regular season as well (31.8 playoffs, 31.5 regular season), reinforcing the fact that Hellebuyck just wasn’t his best in the series.

Could this offensive pace be enough to keep up with the Oilers? With the way that their goaltending situation looks, it might just be enough.

Stuart Skinner Edmonton Oilers
Stuart Skinner, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Stuart Skinner had a solid regular season in net but was really shaky through his first six playoff games. He has the worst save percentage among remaining goaltenders (.884 SV%) and allowed 2.4 goals above expected against the Kings, which is also the worst among the remaining goaltenders. There’s a real chance that Jack Campbell makes an appearance in this series in relief of Skinner, which could end up being a huge turning point for the Golden Knights’ offense.

Regardless of who plays, the Golden Knights are going to have to pump a ton of shots on goal in order to keep up with Edmonton’s high-octane offense. They can’t afford to sit back on leads like they did multiple times against the Jets and they’ll have to take it to them early and often. 

Final Thoughts

This will likely be one of the toughest opponents the Golden Knights have ever played in their postseason history. As opposed to years past, the Oilers have proven to be much more dangerous deeper in their lineup, and don’t have many weaknesses outside of their goaltending.

It’s also worth noting that one of the biggest storylines in this series is between the former first and second overall picks in 2015 in McDavid and Jack Eichel. If Eichel continues to play as well as he did in the final games of Round 1, this could end up going down as a pivotal moment for his career. McDavid will always be the better player, but winning on this stage could be the event that changes the trajectory of Eichel’s career.

Game 1 between these two teams will get underway on Wednesday night at 6:30 PM PST, 9:30 PM EST at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

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