3 Key Matchups to Watch in Oilers vs. Golden Knights Series

The Edmonton Oilers and Vegas Golden Knights will face each other in the playoffs for the first time in history, and it is set to be a very entertaining second-round series. The teams finished first and second in the Western Conference this season and were two of the very best teams in the second half of the season.

Last season, the Oilers advanced to the third round and were swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche while the Golden Knights failed to even make the playoffs. The Oilers and Golden Knights played each other four times during the regular season this year, with the Oilers having a major advantage. Edmonton won three out of the four games and lost the other in overtime, leaving Vegas 1-2-1 in the four games. Two of the games went to overtime, and three of the four games were one-goal decisions. Each of the teams looks fairly different than they did last season, so let’s take a look at three key matchups that should determine the series.

McDavid vs. Eichel

Something nobody thought we would see for a long time was the number one and number two overall picks from the 2015 draft going head-to-head in the playoffs. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel were drafted to different conferences, and it took Eichel getting traded to the Golden Knights for these two to match up in the playoffs.

Connor McDavid Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

There was once a potential debate as to who should go number one overall, but it’s clear that McDavid is the better player and was the right choice for Edmonton. The Oilers’ captain has much more playoff experience, as his team has been to five postseasons (43 games), while Eichel is playing in his first postseason and has played just five games. Though McDavid was just 20 years old when the Oilers first made the playoffs in 2017, he wasn’t the star of the show in Edmonton – that went to Leon Draisaitl. Eichel, on the other hand, is a point-per-game in the playoffs thus far, albeit having six extra years to develop as a player.

McDavid and Eichel are the top centermen for their respective teams and will likely go head-to-head in the opening faceoff. While McDavid is the more established and dominant player, don’t sleep on Eichel as the first playoffs adrenaline is rushing through his veins.

Special Teams Matchup

Before getting into the special teams numbers, the Oilers take this one by a landslide. Both teams must remain disciplined as their penalty kills aren’t the greatest, but there’s no matching the all-time best power play of the Oilers that has only clicked at a higher rate in the playoffs.

Leon Draisaitl Edmonton Oilers
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

First, we’ll look at the head-to-head matchup this season regarding special teams. The calls were fairly even as the Oilers had nine power plays, while the Golden Knights had 10. The execution was what separated the two teams and a reason why the Oilers won three of the four games. Edmonton went 5/9 on the power play, while Vegas scored once in 10 attempts. Though the Oilers shut down the Golden Knights when shorthanded, these teams were almost identical on the penalty kill against the entire league. The Golden Knights had the very slight advantage here with a 77.4 PK% (penalty kill percentage), while the Oilers had a 77.0 PK%.

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The power play is where the teams were really separated; the Oilers had the all-time best power play, and the Golden Knights sat 18th in the league. The Oilers had a whole 12.1 percent higher finishing rate on the power play than Vegas during the regular season, similar to how the Oilers dominated the season series. Now, playoffs are a bit different than the regular season, and there are only 5-6 games to judge the two teams on thus far. But once again, the Oilers have a huge advantage. Edmonton has a 56.3 PP% and 66.7 PK% in their six games, while the Golden Knights have an 18.8 PP% and 58.3 PK%. Once again, I’m giving the advantage to the Oilers overall, as special teams success will play a huge part in the series. Whether the referees settle on what is a penalty and what isn’t is yet to be known.

Goaltending Duel

The goaltending duel may not be one for the ages like some other series have had in the past, and other teams may have this postseason, but it will be an interesting one. Laurent Brossoit, originally drafted by the Calgary Flames and who got his NHL start with the Oilers as a backup, is the Golden Knights’ starter in these playoffs. He helped the team advance to the second round in five games, posting the seventh-best save percentage (.915) among goalies who played at least two games (from “Laurent Brossoit proves he’s more than ‘a backup’ after Golden Knights gain series lead”, The Athletic, Apr. 25, 2023).

Stuart Skinner Edmonton Oilers
Stuart Skinner, Edmonton Oilers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On the other side is Stuart Skinner, who started this season as the backup, took over the number one job from Jack Campbell, and won three of the four first-round games to help the Oilers advance. The Oilers are more offensively gifted and a little weaker defensively, but despite a strong regular season, Skinner posted a .890 SV% (save percentage) in Round 1. While the first-round and regular-season numbers favour Brossoit, he played far fewer games than Skinner this season for a more defensively sound team. It’s about who’s hot, and Skinner rebounded with consecutive wins after getting pulled in Game 4. By the looks of it, the goalie matchup is fairly even, but Brossoit will have to play out of his mind to hold off the Oilers’ offence.

The Oilers are 18-0-3 in their last 21 games dating back to March 11, when they lost their last game in regulation. As the hottest team in the league, they will have to keep their foot on the pedal, and the Golden Knights will have to find a way to shut down the entire team, as it has been more than just McDavid and Draisaitl in these playoffs providing offence.

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