The Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings are now tied 2-2 in the best of seven first-round series. The Oilers haven’t won a playoff series since 2017 when they defeated the San Jose Sharks in six games. The Oilers have some work ahead of them now, as the series turns to a best of three headed back to Edmonton.
The Oilers have had two dominating games in this series, but then were stunned in the other two. In the Kings’ win, Jonathan Quick has been the difference-maker, shutting the door and making a ton of incredible saves to keep the Kings ahead. The Oilers will have to break through and get contributions from depth players, not only their stars, if they plan on winning this series and more following it.
Zack Kassian is the first of the depth players that has and will play a key role in the outcome of the series for the Oilers. He may be the most physical player on the team. When he is on his game and is hitting everything in sight, the hits are hard. Then there are other times when he is more coasting around and slightly bumping opposing players or avoiding contact altogether. The Oilers need the physical playoff Kassian that they’ve got for most of the series to this point.
Kassian has 18 hits in the four games in a fourth-line role. That role and his role on the team is to hit the Kings, whether it’s the forwards or defencemen. He has speed and is like a bull in a china shop when he gets going on his way into the offensive zone corners. This pressure he can cause on the Kings’ defencemen forces turnovers and they will make bad or quick plays so that they can either get out of the way of Kassian or brace for impact.
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The Oilers have played a very physical series to this point and that’s exactly what they need. The Kings are more or less a very young team with 11 players making their Stanley Cup playoff debut. Kassian has been here multiple times before and he knows what he has to do to get ice time and sway the game in favour of the Oilers. Game 4 got very rough, especially in the third period. With the Oilers fighting to get back in the game, Kassian’s ice time was reduced to almost zero. In Game 5 he will have to come out of the gates and set the tone for the Oilers and get right in the face of Quick like how some of the Kings were on top of Mike Smith at times in the Oilers’ end in Game 4.
Duncan Keith is on the borderline of being a depth player for the Oilers. He doesn’t play on the top pairing and has contributed the fifth-most points by a defenceman on the Oilers during the regular season. But his role is so much more than tallying points.
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He has surprised many in his first season with the Oilers as a veteran defenceman in the last years of his career. He isn’t the go-to option on the penalty kill, but he has logged over 110 minutes of shorthanded time on ice this season along with manning the point on the second power-play unit.
As The Hockey Writers‘ Jim Parsons wrote, Keith has been crucial to the development of Evan Bouchard. They have formed a solid second line that is both offensive and defensive. Kurt Leavins of the Edmonton Journal said “Bouchard has taken a major step with Keith attached to his hip.” (from ‘Are these playoffs a window closing or one opening for the Edmonton Oilers organization: 9 Things’, Edmonton Journal, May 8, 2022). In this series that pairing has been on the ice for two goals for and two against at even strength. One of the goals against you can’t fault them for considering the referee got in the way of a clear that led straight to a Kings’ goal.
Bouchard is thriving, and a big part of that is due to his partner, Keith. With a ton of playoff experience – by far the most on the team – he is vocal and one of the leaders who will help push the Oilers deeper into the playoffs. It may have looked like Ken Holland lost the trade for Keith at the beginning, but he knew Keith would be a factor come playoffs, and he should continue to be.
For most of the season, Ryan McLeod has been the swiss army knife for the Oilers. He has taken a huge step forward and looks like he will be a great piece for the future. But we are talking about right now during the playoffs. He is centering the fourth line but playing much more than a fourth-line player typically does. He is averaging over 13 minutes a game due to his ability to run the second power play and kill penalties.
McLeod scored his first playoff goal of his career and added an assist so far through four games. That’s solid production from a depth player and his speed and skill elevates his linemates as well. He has an ability to carry pucks with ease through any zone and has underrated speed. Fourth lines tend to dump the puck and chase a lot, and since his wingers are Kassian and Warren Foegele or Derick Brassard, it’s not a bad option. But McLeod’s puck-handling and speed through the neutral zone make it much easier and less predictable as to what they are going to do when entering the offensive zone.
As seen throughout the season, McLeod is able to play on any line and in any role. He has been elevated at times due to injury and should be the first option to jump on a line in playoffs when someone is underperforming or Jay Woodcroft just wants to get him some more ice time (from ‘Emerging Oilers rookie Ryan McLeod is taking a big step forward under Jay Woodcroft’, Edmonton Journal, March 14, 2022). McLeod has earned that already in the first four games and he will be key to the success of the fourth line and second power play in this series in which the Oilers already have the upper hand.
Each of these three players mentioned above have been good for the Oilers in their first-round series thus far, but the work isn’t done and they will have to continue to show up if the Oilers want to win the depth battle they have lost in the past couple of postseasons.