Oilers must ‘figure out’ even-strength play as struggles persist

St. Louis Blues' Mackenzie MacEachern (28) scores past Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mikko Koskinen (19), of Finland, and Connor McDavid (97) during the third period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, in St. Louis. The Blues won 2-1. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

EDMONTON — Dave Tippett takes Leon Draisaitl away from Connor McDavid. Then he puts him back.

Now, with the Pittsburgh Penguins in town for a high-profile, Friday night visit, the Edmonton Oilers head coach has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins up on McDavid’s left side, with Zack Kassian on the right. Draisaitl will centre the second line, with James Neal and Sam Gagner.

The blender is out, and the players know what’s going on here. Everybody does.

“Five-on-five, we’ve got to find a way to produce more,” admits Nugent-Hopkins, who has just six goals and 18 points this season, with only two goals at even strength. “Definitely myself is included in that. I’ve got to find a way to produce. There have been lots of chances here and there, but none have gone in the net.

One look down the Oilers lineup tells the story. Only two players are on the good side of plus-minus: Kris Russell (plus-1) and Zack Kassian (plus-8).

Oscar Klefbom is at minus-18. James Neal is minus-16. McDavid is at even while Draisaitl is at minus-7 — not what you’d expect of the league’s top-two scorers.

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One issue is the defensive play by those two stars. It was McDavid’s man who scored the game-winning goal in St. Louis, a defensive lapse that hurts when your team captain is the one making it.

“That goal was addressed this morning,” Tippett said at his Friday morning availability. “When you just look at that goal, it looks like Connor was late getting back and getting his man. There were a pile of issues before that occurred.

“On the rush read, Draisaitl should have went over instead of Nurse on the wall. When he doesn’t go there, it goes to the back of the net and it would have left Nurse in front of the net. It goes to the back of the net and Bear got beat by O’Reilly behind the net. In the meantime, Draisaitl comes back and swung through the slot and Kassian swung through the other way and McDavid was the last guy, the last-ditch effort to try to get the guy. There were lots of issues before that.”

Outside of defensive lapses, the lack of even strength production tells us two things about this Oilers team. The power play is excellent; but at five-on-five, there isn’t nearly enough juice.

“We cannot expect our power play to win games for us every night,” said Klefbom, fresh off picking up his mom, dad and sister at Edmonton International Airport, where they flew in from Sweden for the holidays. “It’s been winning a lot of games, but I think that’s not the way to success. We need to figure out how to play five-on-five. Especially when you play teams like St. Louis, like Boston and Washington, the five-on-five game has to be there.”

The Oilers have just 66 five-on-five goals, which is tied with the Vancouver Canucks for 21st in the NHL.

If the power play, which leads the league at 30.3 percent, wasn’t so strong, this team would be in trouble. And when the Oilers don’t connect with a man advantage, as was the case against St. Louis, they lost almost every time.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

“I think one of the best ways to play defence is go play in the other team’s end. That’s kind of what we’re trying to build to,” said Sam Gagner, who has moved up and down the lineup but gets very little power play time on the second unit.

That means forwards must get open early for defencemen, so breakout passes can be clean. Then those forwards have to make the right play in the neutral zone so the puck gets into the offensive zone, rather than coming back to your own goaltender on an odd-man rush.

Those neutral zone mistakes cost the Oilers both goals in the 2-1 loss at St. Louis. It was a game of big-boy hockey, where very few mistakes made — but those that were proved costly.

“We need to be a team that drives play into the other team’s end,” Gagner said. “The next step for us is getting to the blue paint and create some second-chance opportunities. It feels like goals come from that.

“Once you get the puck you’ve got to keep it, and go play in the other team’s end.”

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