Edmonton Oilers’ coach Dave Tippett has the only opinion that really counts on what changes the Edmonton Oilers have to make in order to beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Monday.
He’s got the experience, the authority and an excellent season of decision-making to his credit. It’s also his job on the line as a pro hockey coach who is paid for one thing: winning.
I saw few hints from Tippett’s press conference on what changes he might make, but I know you’ve got your opinions and I’ve also got mine.
Here’s what I’m thinking, the five things that have to change, and likely will change, if the Oilers are going to get the best of Chicago:
- Mikko Koskinen starts. At his press conference, Tippett defended goalie Mike Smith, as is only right. You can’t have a coach throwing his goalie under the bus, especially when the rest of the hockey world is doing just that. By our Cult of Hockey count, we had Smith making major errors on three goals against, the first goal with the turnover, the fourth goal where he failed to cut out a pass across his crease and the fifth goal, where he was deep in his net on an outside shot. So we did see Smith as a big part of the problem. Mikko Koskinen would have been my pick for Game One, as I made clear before the game, mainly because Chicago isn’t a dump-and-chase team, but a team that tries to set up and take high percentage shots. Smith is exactly the right kind of puck-handling ace to thwart a dump-and-case team, but on a team relying on precision passing and shooting, the massive Kosk, who takes up a huge portion of the net with his size, presents problems. Shooters look up and see nothing to shoot at when Koskinen is on his game. That’s what Chicago will see on Monday evening. When Kosk is at his best, the other team starts getting too fine and exact with its shooting and starts missing the net as the game progresses.
- Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom step up. Did Larsson and Klefbom play a worse game all year? I don’t think so. Larsson made seven major mistakes on Grade A chances against Chicago, while Klefbom made eight. Those totals are so high they speak of complete and utter defensive dysfunction in a game. Klefbom seemed iffy with the puck, while Larsson was a step behind the play all game. He’d chase players to the boards for a big hit then find himself out of the play, watching the play and not covering his man who was slinking into the slot for a Grade A chance. The two were so bad they didn’t even look like they were in pre-season form. Can they turn it around in one game? It’s a tall order given how out of whack they were in Game One. But maybe instead of their “F” game they can at least bring their “C+” or “B-” game. Without that, the Oilers are sunk.
- The penalty kill calms down. The Oilers’ PK is a good one, one that funnels teams to the outside, pushes them down low into the corners, and then pounces when the time is right. Against Chicago in Game One, they were out of sync. They did OK at forcing the Blackhawks to the outside, but they were pouncing too often when the time was wrong. The most obvious example of this was Chicago’s first power play goal, where four Oilers were in the corner, with no one covering shooter Jonathan Toews when he got the puck in the slot. Not even Adam Larsson, who should have been covering the net front, was in front of the net just then. He had charged into the corner to throw a hit, which might have seemed like a good idea, but the Oilers failed to win the puck, Chicago did, and fed Toews, who was wide open to score. In Game Two, Edmonton will have to play with aggression on the PK, but not over-commit and fail to win the puck, leaving open Chicago shooters. It’s a fine balance but this is a smart group of PK players. I’m betting they’ll get it right.
- Connor McDavid plays as well at even strength as he did on the power play. Like Larsson and Klefbom, McDavid didn’t bring his “A” game at even strength, he brought his “F” game. I can’t recall a game this year where he was more ineffectual at even strength. At the same time, McD was his brilliant attacking self on the power play. It strikes me that McDavid works best with straight line players, guys like Zack Kassian, Andreas Athanasiou, James Neal, Josh Archibald, Tyler Ennis even. Pick two of those guys to do the dirty work and I bet we’ll see a new McDavid in Game Two, one carrying the mail, indeed one carrying his entire team on his back.
- Tippet reunites the Dynamite Line. I didn’t like it at the start of training camp when Tippett broke up the Dynamite Line of Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto. I liked that move even less having seen the results in Game One, where neither the Draisaitl or the McDavid’s line had much going on at even strength. The Dynamite Line was only the single most successful two-way line in hockey this year. It works so well because all three players have high hockey IQs and they also like to give up the puck and move the puck. They sum is greater than the parts. If the Dynamite Line can’t give Edmonton a boost right now, maybe no line can do so. But I’m betting it can do so. My bottom line on this is that if the Oilers are gong to lose, they might as well see if Chicago can stop the best version of this Oilers team, and that best version right now is led by the Dynamite Line at even strength. Some folks will argue it’s a panic move to change up your lines after one bad game, but Tippett constantly tinkered with his lines all year. It wasn’t panic when he did it then, it was him trying to find the right combinations to win. The Dynamite Line was the best combination he ever found. Why not go back to it now?