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Oilers power play catches fire

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

What has caused such a remarkable turnaround in the Oilers power play? It has been a combination of system buy-in, chemistry and confidence.

The Oilers power play, post All-Star break, is top dog in the NHL, operating at 28.6%. That wasn’t always the case. Last season, the Oilers finished 21st in the league on the man advantage. This year didn’t start off well either, with the Oilers power play at 27th in the league (14.0%) heading into the All-Star break.

“What we had to do here was create a couple of ideas and one, you can’t freelance everything,” Oilers Assistant Coach Craig Ramsay said on Oilers Now Tuesday. “You can’t ad lib everything. You’ve got to stick with the plan, you’ve got to have a plan and believe in it. The players wanted to make some adjustments to the plan, and I’m not a big fan of that, so at some point they bought in and we started to shoot the puck a little bit more. Once we shot the puck and use some high ice, now you’ve seen some really incredible plays.”

An example of such a play comes from Monday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Justin Schultz, working from the blueline, passed the puck to Teddy Purcell along the left half wall. He passed inside to Jordan Eberle, who one-tapped it right back. Purcell worked down low towards the corner as Eberle also worked to the goal line. Purcell hit Eberle again with a pass as Anton Lander snuck towards the back side of the net.

Eberle again worked it out to Purcell and then it went back to Eberle, drawing attention from the Leafs penalty killers. One dove for the puck and the Oilers winger sauced it across the crease to a waiting Lander, who had space and an open backdoor shot at the net. Lander buried it for the 4-0 lead and the Oilers second power-play goal of the game.

“I thought the d-man was too close in so I was trying to just find a spot on the back door and Ebs made a great play,” Lander said.

Eberle’s assist to Lander was the seventh pass of that cycle, beginning with Schultz at the point. The Oilers patiently lured the Leafs to one side, leaving Lander open for the kill shot.

“I think we’ve gotten a little more patient with the puck,” said Lander, who has four power-play goals since the All-Star break.

Photo by Andy Devlin | Edmonton Oilers

Patient, but not too patient. The Oilers power play is generating its fair share of shots, putting pucks on net from a variety of locations. The structure has also been good. Operating out of a 1-3-1 system, the Oilers put forth a calculated effort to open up different opportunities on the man advantage.

“That’s the key,” Eberle said. “There’s no easy way to score in this league. You have to do it different ways. Whether it’s shooting from the point with traffic or whether it’s a good tic-tac-toe play. I think those different things open up one another. If you use the point shots quite a bit, they start cheating there and it opens up low plays. You definitely have to mix it up.”

The Oilers have scored on 10 of their last 23 power-play attempts (43.5%). They aren’t all scored like the Lander goal against Toronto though.

In the third period against Columbus last Friday, Eberle dished a backhand pass from down low to the top of the circle where Nail Yakupov was waiting. Yakupov hammered home a one-timer, something he’s been able to do more frequently in the second half of the season. He is tied with Lander for the team lead in power-play goals since the break (4).

“Yak has been shooting,” Ramsay said. “He is taking shots that he wouldn’t take early in the season. He would stick handle it instead of shooting it, and now he’s hammered a few.”

Yakupov’s shot has become a focus of opposing teams’ penalty kill units. But if Yakupov doesn’t get his chance, someone else may get an opportunity just based on the attention he's drawing. Eberle leads the team with 13 power-play points (3-10-13) since the break. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is second with nine (2-7-9). Schultz presents the potential for a shot from the point as well.

Photo by Getty Images

“Now the box gets spread. You’ll make plays, and they can make plays,” Ramsay said.

Good puck retrieval has also helped. It’s something Ramsay says is key to a successful power play and Lander, who’s pretty good at it himself, agrees.

“We’re also retrieving a lot of pucks,” Lander said. “After we’ve been taking a shot, we find the puck again and that’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to keep the pace up if you’re going to play the power play. You can’t slow it down, you’ve got to go even quicker. We’ve been retrieving the puck and we’ve been bringing the puck to the net.”

Against Pittsburgh last Thursday, Derek Roy found Yakupov in the slot for a one-timer that went wide. Oscar Klefbom retrieved the puck then passed to Roy in the corner. Roy took a couple steps in, then found Benoit Pouliot on the back side for a great look at the net. Matt Hendricks had the net-front presence on the goal.

“We’re getting to a point now where both units are adapting to what other teams are doing,” Nelson said. “So even though we have structure with our units, we can get out of that structure and slide from a 1-3-1 to an overload. And the guys are reading well off each other. You can’t be a one-trick pony on the power play. You have to give them different looks. (The opponent’s) penalty kill could dictate that, but there are things that we want to do. If it’s not set up in a perfect world, we have to adapt. And the guys are getting really good at reading those situations and that’s why we’re scoring different ways.”

The late season power-play surge has given the players confidence in their ability to put the puck in the net.

“I feel like every time we go out there we feel like we’re going to score and when you have that and you’re clicking together and shooting to score, that’s a recipe for success,” Eberle said. “We’ve just got to continue that. The power play is such an important part of the game nowadays with all the penalties that if you can create momentum there and put the puck in the net then you’re going to have a good chance to win every night.”

Continuity has also played into the success. Nelson hasn’t had to do much tinkering with the personnel on his two units.

“I think the guys are just feeling comfortable with the chemistry they have,” Nelson said. “Sometimes if they don’t see where somebody is, they know they’re going to be there. These two units have been together quite a while. They’re just feeling real comfortable. They’re doing the right things, they’re shooting the puck more and I think we’re winning more draws in the offensive zone so we don’t have to break the puck out. So it’s a combination of everything. We’ve always had pretty good looks, even when our power play was struggling a little bit. We were having good looks, we just weren’t finishing and now we’re starting to finish.”

It may have been near the bottom of the league at the break but, after gaining chemistry and confidence, the Oilers power play has climbed to 14th for the season (18.4%). Can they continue their scorching pace and possibly finish higher? There are 12 games left to answer that question.

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