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Undisciplined Oilers will need to stop parade to the box to beat Sharks

The Oilers' seven minor penalties in Game 1 resulted in two goals against and less prime ice time for their offensive stars. Beating the Sharks is going to require more discipline.

There will be no panic this morning in Edmonton. There’s no reason for it, really. Sure, the Oilers face a one-nil deficit in their opening round series against the defending Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks, but one game does not a series make. 

That doesn’t mean this young Edmonton team doesn’t need to make some corrections, however.

As coach Todd McLellan addresses his group and as the youthful Oilers watch game film, they’ll see a smothering performance in the early going that led to a 2-0 lead after the first period. In many aspects, the opening frame of Game 1 was about as good as one could have hoped from an Oilers perspective. Oscar Klefbom scored in the early going, which didn’t only signal an early lead but an early offensive contribution from the back end, which is going to be important on any run in the post-season. Later, Milan Lucic doubled that lead with a goal of his own — a power play tally, no less. And throughout the frame the Oilers generated 14 shot attempts to the Sharks’ nine, getting the run of the possession game when the teams were at even strength.

But sprinkled among all the good Edmonton did in the first 20 minutes of playoff hockey the organization has seen in a decade were three minor penalties. And the Oilers should be coming away from the opening contest with the realization that if they want to emerge from the first round victorious, winning a series against a team that nearly climbed the mountain one season prior, something’s going to need to be done about the lack of discipline.

In Game 1, Edmonton managed to pick up seven minor infractions, six of which resulted in power plays for San Jose. And though the merits of each minor can be argued — was Drake Caggiula’s hook late in the first really enough to really warrant a whistle? — the fact of the matter is they were called and may have very well swung the contest in San Jose’s favor. Said McLellan post-game: “Some were careless sticks, some were hooks that we didn’t need to hook, one was a slash we didn’t need to slash. We wasted 10 or 11 minutes penalty killing tonight. Takes a lot of energy out of a number of individuals, takes a lot of players out of the rhythm of the game and certainly didn’t work in our favor. That’s pretty obvious.”

On the scoreboard, no two penalties were more impactful than Caggiula’s hook and Patrick Maroon’s bizarre holding the stick minor, which came when he decided it best to sit on Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s stick, leading to a battle that saw both players heading for the box. At the end of Caggiula’s first of two minors, Joel Ward scored the first of the Sharks’ two goals on the evening and the resulting 4-on-4 from the dustup between Maroon and Vlasic opened up the game. San Jose took advantage with Paul Martin levelling the score.

It’s tough enough to surrender a two-goal lead, but tougher yet when one could say Edmonton shot themselves in their own foot. Looking at the infractions, it could be argued that every single one was needless. The first call came on an offensive-zone trip behind the Sharks’ net. The second was a post-whistle high stick. Caggiula’s was the third, which was followed by a reckless elbowing minor midway through the second frame by Eric Gryba. Then there’s a second high-sticking call, Maroon’s odd minor and, finally, the slash.

And when McLellan mentions that slash, the one the Oilers “didn’t need to slash,” he’s pointing directly to the mid-third period penalty taken by Milan Lucic. With roughly nine minutes left in a tied game, Lucic took a retaliatory penalty, chopping at the knee of Timo Meier after he had delivered an open-ice hit. Again, the merits of the penalty can be argued and it didn’t take a Paul Bunyan-esque effort from Lucic to fell Meier. The fact is, though, Lucic, who has a Stanley Cup and more than 100 playoff games on his resume, should know better than to retaliate at that time in the game, especially against a team that has been so excellent at drawing penalties.

Matter of fact, sending the opposition to the kill has been San Jose’s MO this past season. No team had a better penalty differential than the Sharks, who were plus-42 at all strengths. Edmonton wasn’t too bad themselves at plus-21, but San Jose was the only team to come close, let alone surpass, a 40-penalty swing. At 5-on-5, the Sharks weren’t quite as effective at drawing infractions, but the plus-14 differential was ninth-best in the NHL and better, if only narrowly, than the Oilers’ plus-11 mark.

When it comes to Lucic’s penalty, the infraction didn’t prove costly for the Oilers — only one of the six times the Sharks headed to the power play did they strike — but that should offer no relief for Edmonton. During Lucic’s time in the box, San Jose generated seven shots towards the goal, four of which had to be stopped by Cam Talbot with one coming inches from finding twine, nicking off the crossbar and clear of the net. The final minute of the penalty kill was frantic for the Oilers and the Sharks came close to capitalizing. But moments like that, and needless penalties early or late, shouldn’t only be concerning because of the threat of a Sharks goal.

The power plays can serve a purpose for San Jose beyond scoring if each man advantage manages to take Connor McDavid off the ice. The Oilers captain averaged less than 50 seconds of ice time on the penalty kill during the season, so any time the Oilers are shorthanded is time McDavid is unlikely to have the chance to burn the Sharks. And while no defense can stop McDavid entirely, there’s no need to even be able to if he’s not seeing the ice. That’s not to say McDavid won’t play during the penalty kill, as evidenced by McLellan trotting his superstar center out for 1:29 shorthanded Wednesday evening, but containing McDavid is bound to be easier when he can be doubled up defensively.

The reality is that even if San Jose’s power play was rather powerless during the regular season, the Sharks stand to kill a lot of time in this series by forcing the Oilers to penalty kill. Beyond that, it’s only going to be a matter of time before San Jose makes Edmonton pay. Joe Thornton didn’t play Game 1, but you can rest assured he would relish the opportunity to feast on six man advantages. A similar undisciplined performance from the Oilers at another point in this series could give ‘Jumbo’ the chance to do so.

Edmonton is unlikely to have a penalty-free game in the series, particularly against a San Jose squad that has been exceptional at earning power plays, but that doesn’t mean the infractions can’t be limited. And the more time the Oilers spend at even strength, and the more time McDavid is given to operate, the better their chances are at finding a way past the Sharks.

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Johhny Gaudreau

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