The Edmonton Oilers are onto the second round to face the Vegas Golden Knights after defeating the Los Angeles Kings in six games in the opening round. Their top guns like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl delivered as expected with a combined 21 points, along with their top-six support like Zach Hyman and Evander Kane, who both scored big and timely goals throughout the series. However, they also received big performances from depth players that stepped up to contribute to the first round series win.
That said, below I ranked four unsung heroes — players who may not receive as much attention or recognition as the Oilers’ star players, but who played a crucial role in their team’s success in beating the Kings in the opening round, and I ranked them based on the impact they had in the series.
#4 – Oilers’ Bjugstad Excelled in Depth Role
When the Oilers made their deals around the trade deadline, the acquisition of Mattias Ekholm was the blockbuster move, but I wrote that the trade for Nick Bjugstad would turn out to be an underrated acquisition and his subtle yet effective play against the Kings proved that statement to be correct.
He averaged 14:68 in six games in the first round and went 54- 41 in the faceoff circle, taking many important draws for the Oilers. Also, he wasn’t overly physical in the series, but he used his 6-foot-6 frame to knock a few Kings to the ice at different moments throughout the six games, and his best performance came in Game 5 when he was promoted to the top six. Bjugstad was bumped up to play with Hyman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and in the second period, he tipped the puck past Joonas Korpisalo for his first goal of the playoffs and his backhand attempt in the third went into the Kings’ net, helping the Oilers win 6-3.
All in all, the 30-year-old centerman is proving to be a subtle, yet big acquisition because he’s provided depth, chipped in on the scoreboard, and does much of the heavy lifting on the penalty kill, taking pressure off of Draisaitl to win important draws. Moreover, despite being with Edmonton for only two months, he’s fully on board to do whatever it takes to win, saying in his postgame media availability after Game 5, “I would do anything to win a Stanley Cup.”
#3 – Yamamoto’s Contribution Was Better Late Than Never
Kailer Yamamoto snuck his way into the third spot on the unsung heroes list just in the nick of time. The Oilers’ winger started the series against the Kings in the top six, averaging 16:90 in the first four games; however, he struggled in that role (at least points-wise), failing to produce a single point, despite playing with top-end talent. By Game 5, he was demoted from the top two lines, and by Game 6 he was dropped to the quasi-fourth line with fellow winger Klim Kostin, and the duo was paired with a rotation of centermen throughout the game.
Despite his offensive struggles, the dogged winger didn’t give up and the demotion, and playing against weaker competition, seemed to work. Both he and Kostin combined for five points in Game 6, but most importantly, Yamamoto became the game’s hero when he scored the winner late in the third period to help the Oilers win 5-4 and close out the series. Hopefully, the goal is a confidence boost and a sign of things to come for the 5-foot-8 forward, because the Oilers need all hands on deck against the Golden Knights in Round 2.
#2- Oilers’ Campbell Redeemed Himself With Big Saves
Oilers’ netminder Jack Campbell had a tough regular season, winning 21 games, but his 3.41 goals-against average (GAA) ranked 49th in the NHL and his .888 save percentage (SV%) was 87th among goaltenders. He struggled to find consistency throughout the regular season, and down the playoff stretch it was abundantly clear that Stuart Skinner was the Oilers’ clear-cut number-one goaltender, starting 15 out of the last 20 games.
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Consequently, Campbell watched the Oilers’ first few postseason games from the bench, but he emerged as an unlikely hero in Game 4. The Kings were up 2-1 in the series, and Edmonton fell behind 3-0 in the first period. Head coach Jay Woodcroft injected his team with a jolt of energy by switching Skinner (who wasn’t at fault for the goals against) with Campbell to start the second period and the first-year Oiler redeemed his inconsistent regular season with his play in the remaining 40 minutes of Game 4.
It wasn’t a technically sound performance, because at times it seemed like he didn’t know where the puck was, but he shut the door when he needed to. His first test of the night was stopping a 2-on-1 attempt by Viktor Arvidsson and denied the rebound attempts. Later on, Kings’ defenceman Matt Roy was able to beat Campbell when he snuck in all alone, but the Oilers goaltender wouldn’t give up another goal for the rest of the night.
He stopped a shot by Drew Doughty with eight minutes left and made his biggest save in an Oilers’ uniform with six minutes left in the game. On the play, Hyman gave the puck away and Arvidsson skated in all alone and Campbell made a spectacular pad save. Had the Kings scored on that play, they would’ve been up 5-3, and if Edmonton would’ve lost the game, they would’ve been down 3-1 in the series, which would’ve been a huge hole to climb out of. For all the adversity and criticism Campbell faced in the regular season, he made up for it by stopping 27 of 28 shots in Game 4, which helped the Oilers claw their way back into the game, turn the series around, and likely preserve their season.
#1- Kostin Gave Oilers Quality Minutes in Limited Time
Before the playoffs started, I made a prediction that Oilers’ forward Kostin could be a valuable player for the team in the postseason. I wrote that if he kept it simple, by being physical and chipping in timely goals, he could emerge as a playoff hero and become a town treasure in Edmonton for years to come and so far, he hasn’t disappointed.
The Oilers’ hulking winger takes the number one spot on the unsung heroes list from the first round. He only played a total of 35:76 in six games, but he was third among forwards in hits on the team (20), behind Kane and Hyman. In addition, he was exceptional at 5-on-5, recording a 30-14 in scoring-chances-for when he was on the ice and scored three goals and added an assist.
Despite playing only 7:42, he was the hero of Game 2. He dished out five hits on the night and with the score tied 2-2 in the third period, he scored an early goal with a wicked wrister that beat goaltender Korpisalo, which turned out to be the game-winner. Fast forward to Game 6 and the Oilers’ winger played arguably the best game of his NHL career. In only 8:44, he scored two goals — his first was by cutting to the middle and shooting one past Korpisalo in the first period, and in the third, he picked up a rebound and scored the go-ahead goal. Moreover, he picked up an assist on Yamamoto’s game-winning goal, but an underrated contribution on the play was his battle in front of the net to screen the Kings’ netminder.
Kostin rose to the occasion in the first round and was highly impactful against the Kings. Moving forward, it’ll be interesting to see if Woodcroft rewards him with more minutes against the Golden Knights.
The Oilers’ series against the Kings was filled with big momentum swings and Edmonton overcame the adversity with big performances from not only their stars, but from their depth players as well. If they hope to defeat the Golden Knights in the second round and keep their Stanley Cup hopes alive, they’ll need to continue getting solid contributions from players up and down their lineup.
Other than the Oilers’ star players, which player do you feel was the biggest difference-maker in the first round? Have your say in the comments below!