Oilers making Kings pay for taking penalties in first-round series

·4 min read

EDMONTON — It’s hard to believe the Edmonton Oilers power play could get even better after a record-setting regular season.

But it has.

The Los Angeles Kings go into Saturday’s Game 6 of their first-round playoff series with the Oilers with one goal in mind — staving off elimination. But, to do that, they’ll need to stop going to the penalty box, or find a way to stop the Oilers' juggernaut of a power play.

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The Oilers, who had an NHL all-time best 32.4 success rate with the man advantage during the regular season, have clicked on eight of 14 chances so far this series.

The irony is that, over the course of regular season meetings, the Kings killed off 11 of 13 short-handed situations. Against a power play like the Oilers possess, those were gaudy numbers.

“They had some success against us in the regular season,” said the NHL’s top scorer, Connor McDavid. “They work us hard. But, the strength of our power play is winning battles. It always has been. It’s not structure, it’s not anything fancy, although it may look fancy.”

The Kings led the series after three games, but now trail 3-2.

Power-play goals have turned Games 4 and 5 on their ears. In Game 4, down 3-0 in Los Angeles, Evan Bouchard got a power-play marker early in the second period to spark the comeback that led to a 5-4 Oilers win. It wasn’t just that Bouchard scored; it’s that the goal changed the momentum of the game.

In Game 5, a 6-3 win for Edmonton, the Oilers went 2-for-3 on the power play.

The first goal of that game came after Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the first power-play unit went off the ice. It felt like the Kings breathed a collective sigh of relief, let their guard down and were burned by the second unit as an Evander Kane wrister found the net.

After the Kings clawed back to make it a 3-2 game, the Oilers power play not only scored — with a Bouchard point shot deflecting off Zach Hyman’s face — it gave the home side a massive momentum boost, and the score snowballed from there.

“I didn’t know who it hit, I didn’t know where it hit,” said Bouchard. “Luckily, it didn’t catch him in too bad of a spot.”

The short-handed situation the Kings were able to kill off came late in the game with Edmonton up by three goals. The Oilers were focused on running seconds off the clock.

"A couple of errant plays, a penalty that we certainly didn't need, and they were able to score a couple of goals,” said Kings forward Anze Kopitar. “But, coming in at 3-2, it felt like it was anybody's game."

Both Kopitar and coach Todd McLellan were curt in their answers when asked if the Oilers power play can be stopped.

Kopitar said the Kings simply can’t take penalties.

“We knew that going in,” he said.

"We'll try and adjust," is what McLellan added about his team’s penalty kill.

McDavid says the Oilers will be ready for any tweaks the Kings make.

“I suspect they’re just going to ramp up their effort level, their pressure,” he said. “That’s what they did in the regular season. I would suspect that it would go up.

“With that being said, it’s nothing we haven’t faced before. We know it’s going to be difficult, they’re not just going to try and let us score.”

In Game 5, the Kings had one of the penalty killers apply more pressure on Bouchard, but the Oilers have so many set plays and weapons that they can cycle through.

Draisaitl scored many of his 32 regular-season power-play goals on one-timers from the side of the net. McDavid can set up behind the net or make a speed burst to the front. Hyman sets up in front of the net for garbage. They have made many good penalty killers chase shadows.

When the Oilers traded Tyson Barrie to Nashville at the trade deadline for Mattias Ekholm, there were questions about what it would do to the Oilers’ vaunted power play. Could Bouchard graduate successfully to the role of power-play quarterback?

The answer has been a resounding yes. If anything, the power play has improved. Bouchard has a heavier shot from the point — the “Bouch Bomb” — and a nasty wrister, as well. He has eight points through the first five playoff games — seven of them on the power play.

“I guess there was (pressure on me) a little bit,” said Bouchard. “But, you try not to think of it that way, you think of it more as an opportunity than pressure.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 27, 2023.

Steven Sandor, The Canadian Press