So the Oilers are more likely to give up a zone entry on the side of the ice but not one in the middle of the ice, that is the cost-benefit, I asked Playfair?“That is exactly what it is, yes.”
Why are you willing to give the zone entry to the outside but not the one to the middle?
“I just think it’s an extension of our five-on-five. If you can close down the middle of the ice and you force teams to stay outside the (faceoff) dots (in Edmonton’s end), it gives your goaltenders a better recognition of where the pucks are coming from. There is less dangerous shots and entries through the middle of the ice. Everybody wants to get pucks to the middle of the ice. Everybody in the offensive zone wants to get pucks into the middle and try to score goals from inside the dots. And we’re trying to close down the middle of the ice five-on-five and five-on-four. That’s what we’d like about it, it’s an extension of our five-on-five play. So our defenseman stay consistent. They are familiar with what their roles are and our forwards are consistent, because like I say, we do it five-on-five and we continue to do it on our penalty kill.”
“I just like to use the term that it’s ‘five-on-five’ so … when we do get into a puck battle and someone (opposing attacker) gets stopped up, we are confident to surround it and stay in it. Lots of times on the penalty kill you get into it, but you get a little bit hesitant in the battle and you back off to protect ice. We like to have the theory that when a one-on-one battle is established, if you can get that battle surrounded and get three one-on-one battle going, then you have a release player in the middle supporting…. If it does break down you have a support player and you have your goaltender.
“That five-on-five mentality gives you a little more confidence instead of saying it’s five-on-four. We are trying to recognize where can we pressure teams, where can we get pucks into the areas of the ice. So if they are in the half wall and they are looking at you and have got full possession, you’ve just got to restrict the passing lanes. We keep sticks in passing lanes. And then if we can flush them down and strike, if the wingers can push them down (to the corners and behind the net), we can get a little bit of defensive pressure down low and keep the puck in half of the ice. I think it increases your odds of getting it stopped up and getting into battles and getting it down the ice.”
“It’s just an area of the ice that you can probably apply more pressure as a group,” Playfair said. “You can get that puck in motion, push down to the goal line, then you have them in an area of the rink where you can really strike, and you can push them into the corner, you can manage their time and space better because now they’re working down below the goal line and the back of the net in a little bit more confined space. Whereas if they get the puck on the hash mark and back it up high, there’s a lot of real estate out there to work with.
“So you try to push them into the area of the ice where you feel very confident that you can get people around to support the battle down low. It’s difficult to support the battle of up high because they can expose you so high if you’re running around. Then they bring the puck to the net and you don’t have anybody at the net.
Focus on the prevention of three things
The Oilers’ focus is on stopping three things: a) shots from the middle of the ice, b) cross-seam passes and c) rebounds shots, Playfair said. This is the focus both at even strength and on the penalty kill. “There are three things you don’t want. You don’t want shots in the middle. You don’t want passes through the seams. And you don’t want rebounds. Those are fairly consistent of every penalty kill.”
Edmonton does not want any attacker moving into the middle of the offensive zone and certainly not the offensive power play quarterback. “When pucks go back up to the point, the defenseman can move to the middle of the ice and they can just create so many more options. They can shoot it. They can pass it either way. They have a lot more options.”
If there is a shot, the idea is to get enough players down low to cover off all the attackers, so the PK unit always has enough manpower to take away those deadly rebound shots.
Playfair praised the shot-blocking of his d-men, such as Kris Russell.
“Kris is such a warrior,” Playfair said. “I have always had such a great deal of respect for the way that Kris Russell defends and plays hockey. He plays hard. He blocks shots all the time. I would not have known that he had blocked a significant amount less than in the past.
“He’s a quick player, he’s a smart player, he’s an intense defender and he’s very aware of what’s going on around him. He does an excellent job trying to apply pressure and getting people into vulnerable positions — and when it’s required, he’s ready to block shots. He will try to block the shot. I would say that the rest of our group looks to him as being the premier shot blocker. And guys are starting to recognize that that’s a really important part. In trying to win the two-minute game, it’s being prepared to block a shot.
“I look at all of our guys and I see to a man they all block shots. It’s funny, I wouldn’t know who blocks more than the next guy on the penalty kill … I could send you clips of (Ethan) Bear and (Matt) Benning and Doc (Nurse) and every one of those guys are committed to blocking shots. I would say this: they recognize where they are trying to take away lanes with high pressure, but once the pass is made to a certain area of the ice, that’s where they commit to blocking the shot.”