June 16th, 2024

Edmonton Oilers’ penalty killers holding up their side of the special teams ledger

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on June 4, 2024.

Edmonton Oilers celebrate the win over the Dallas Stars in game 6 of the Western Conference finals of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton, Sunday, June 2, 2024.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Move over, Edmonton Oilers power play. The penalty killers are in the spotlight.

The Oilers reached their first Stanley Cup final in 18 years in no small measure to a stingy penalty kill that hasn’t given up a goal in their last 10 playoff games, and kept a clean sheet in 28 straight short-handed situations.

The Oilers and Florida Panthers open the 2024 Stanley Cup final with Saturday’s Game 1 in Sunrise, Fla.

When Edmonton’s vaunted power play went quiet the first four games of the Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars, the grunt work of foot soldiers like Mattias Janmark, Derek Ryan, Connor Brown and Cody Ceci complemented goaltender Stuart Skinner’s efforts to protect the defensive side of the special teams ledger.

Holding the Stars’ power play to 0-for-5 in a Game 1 double overtime win in Dallas was pivotal.

While Edmonton’s power play revived with a roar by going 4-for-5 in back-to-back victories to close out the conference final – captain Connor McDavid’s first period goal in Game 6 was a work of hand-eye-toe-drag art – the Oilers’ penalty killers deserved a bow.

“I thought that was one of the determining factors in the series,” defenceman Mattias Ekholm said.

Both Ekholm and head coach Kris Knoblauch credited assistant coach Mark Stuart’s handling of Edmonton’s kill.

“The penalty kill, when I got here, was struggling,” said Knoblauch, who took over for fired Jay Woodcroft in November when the Oilers were 3-9-1.

“I’m not taking any credit on the penalty kill. It’s not my responsibility. It’s Mark Stuart, who has done a tremendous job on that. The only think I’ll take credit for is giving him responsibility to do the penalty kill.”

Knoblauch said he initially “wasn’t sure” about handling the penalty kill to Stuart.

“He’d never run the penalty kill. I didn’t know him as a coach,” Knoblauch said. “I knew he was fairly green and hadn’t been doing this very long, but there weren’t many options and we gave him that responsibility and he has done a fabulous job of it.

“I don’t think we’d be here today if our penalty kill hadn’t been as strong as it had been through all the series.”

Edmonton heads into the Cup final with a power-play clicking at 37.3 per cent and a kill operating at 93.9 per cent.

Florida’s is running at 23.3 and 88.2 per cent respectively.

Stuart, a former defenceman who played 673 NHL games with Boston, Atlanta and Winnipeg, is in his second season as Edmonton’s assistant coach.

His work has helped Edmonton break the opposition’s “will with our kill” in the post-season so far, Ekholm said.

“He is hard, but humble,” Ekholm said. “I really enjoy working with him on it.

“It’s never ‘what the heck are you doing?’ It’s more ‘OK, let’s look at this. What are you thinking? Here’s what I’m thinking.’ He works with us in a really good way.”

Edmonton’s goal differential 5-on-5 is plus-1 after 18 playoff games, so the Oilers’ special teams will likely factor into whether they hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time in 34 years.

“It’s always a new challenge with who you’re playing next, so looking forward to that,” said Oilers forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “We take a lot of pride in it and we’re going to keep getting better.”

Game 2 is Monday in Sunrise before the best-of-seven Cup final flips to Edmonton on June 13 and June 15.

A Game 5, if necessary, would be June 18 back in Florida, Game 6 would be June 21 in Edmonton and Game 7 is June 24 if the series goes the distance.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

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