Western Conference Final Preview: Oilers vs. Stars

Elliotte Friedman joins Evanka Osmak and Ken Reid on Sportsnet Central to discuss how the Edmonton Oilers were able to secure the win in Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks to advance to the Western Conference Final.

For the second time in three seasons, the Edmonton Oilers have earned a shot at the Western Conference crown, just four wins separating them from a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.

They’ve been here before. Two years ago, Connor McDavid’s club stumbled off a cliff just as it reached this summit. After a hard-fought, seven game battle with the Los Angeles Kings, and a five-game grudge match with the rival Calgary Flames, a painfully brief season-ending sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Colorado Avalanche snuffed out Edmonton’s Cup dreams just as they started to feel real.

Last year, the pain came even quicker. The Oilers made it only as far as the second round, and then came that familiar feeling, the club ousted again by the eventual champs, this time the Vegas Golden Knights.

Now, Edmonton arrives at the precipice of greatness once again, with another juggernaut before them. And in a bit of hockey-god poetry — the type of stars-aligning that seems reserved for the all-time greats — McDavid’s squad must now try to beat a Dallas Stars team so dominant, they got here by walking all over the former champs who ended the last two Oilers seasons.

On the other side of the sheet, though, the matchup is no less daunting. 

Should the Stars make it out of the Western Conference Final and into that coveted final round, they’ll do so having navigated about as difficult a path through the post-season as one could plot out: a seven-game grind to dethrone the reigning champions; a follow-up six-game tilt against Nathan MacKinnon, in peak form, and his high-flying Avalanche; and now a date with McDavid, one of the greatest pure offensive forces the game has ever seen, surrounded by the best supporting cast he’s ever had.

It’s a tough one to stomach for either fanbase. But it’s a necessary step for both squads to get to what lies beyond — the chance to claim the crown jewel of a new era: the first Stanley Cup raised by the Stars in 25 years, or the first raised by the Oilers in more than three decades.

Head-to-head record regular season:

Oilers: 1-2-0
Stars: 2-0-1

Oilers’ Unsung Hero: Evan Bouchard

He’s far from an under-the-radar contributor, but with so much of the Oilers-related focus often directed at McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, the rest of the forward corps, or who’s manning the cage, it’s worth pausing to recognize just how essential defender Evan Bouchard has been in pulling his club into the third round. Through 12 games, the 24-year-old’s amassed five goals and 20 points for Edmonton, tops among all defencemen in these 2024 playoffs and third-most among all skaters overall. But beyond just the size of that sum, it’s the manner in which he’s contributed that’s made him so valuable to all these Oilers do, Bouchard coming up particularly clutch in these playoffs with a team-leading three game-winners so far.

The most significant role Bouchard’s played, though, is ensuring the Oilers’ power play remains lethal as the stakes have continued to ramp up. That was the story against Vancouver right to the end, the Oilers stacking six man-advantage goals on the Canucks in seven games, the last winding up as the winner in Game 7. And Bouchard was in the thick of it every step of the way, logging more power-play time than anyone else on the team, continuing to make his presence known as one of the club’s top power-play scorers — and registering the primary helper on that series-finale clincher. Even beyond the sequences that wind up with Bouchard’s name on the scoresheet, it’s simply the threat of what he can do that makes him vital to Edmonton’s power play, his all-world point shot keeping defences honest and pulling just enough focus away from the top unit’s twin MVP talents. 

The Oilers won’t have too many areas in which they hold an edge over Dallas, but special teams is one, and Bouchard enters the series as the highest-scoring defender on either side.

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Stars’ Unsung HeroWyatt Johnston

Again, for anyone who’s been following these playoffs, Wyatt Johnston is hardly a hidden gem. Still, it’s easy to forget just how young and new to this level Johnston is, given how central he’s been to the Stars’ success. Through 13 games this post-season, it isn’t two-time 40-goal-scorer Jason Robertson pacing the club in the goals department, or international tourney mainstays Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Matt Duchene or Joe Pavelski. It’s the 21-year-old Johnston, who has seven tallies so far, and sits third on the team in overall scoring with 11 points total. 

Like Bouchard, though, it’s about more than just the total. The 23rd overall pick from 2021, who’s in just his second big-league campaign, has potted them every which way in these playoffs: four of those goals have come at even strength, two on the man-advantage, one short-handed, one in overtime, two finishing as game-winners. Take away the special-teams noise, and Johnston has actually been Dallas’s most effective scorer in these playoffs, the young pivot leading the club with seven even-strength points, and pacing them in shots, too.

Seeing the ice in all situations, the Stars’ sophomore has seemingly earned every bit of head coach Peter DeBoer’s trust heading into the conference finals — through three rounds, Johnston is the only Dallas forward averaging more than 20 minutes of ice per night, the young phenom moved to the front of the pack, ahead Dallas’s crew of decorated veterans.

That offensive depth is sure to be one of the Stars’ key advantages over Edmonton in Round 3, and their young high-flyers, led by Johnston, are a pivotal part of that equation.

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Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick

Oilers Will Win If… Zach Hyman can keep scoring

If the Oilers hope to get by Dallas and reach their first Stanley Cup Final in nearly two decades, they need their prolific offence to live up to its potential in the conference finals, and that means Zach Hyman scoring with regularity once again.

Rewind to the beginning of this post-season run, when Edmonton looked unstoppable and began with a 7-4 rout of the Kings. Leading the charge that night was Hyman, who opened his playoff tab with a hat trick and four points total. The club went on to bounce the Kings in five games, seeming every bit a bona fide contender, and Hyman looked like a crucial cog in the machine, scoring seven times during the series. More importantly, the hard-working winger was getting on the board nightly, scoring in all but one of those five tilts. In Round 2, it was a tougher go for the 50-goal talent. He finished the seven-game battle with four goals, including the opening tally in Game 7, but not without the Canucks holding him goalless for four straight games during the middle stretch of this series.

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The opponent waiting for Edmonton in Round 3 requires a different level of offensive proficiency. The Stars have allowed the fewest goals per game of any club remaining in these playoffs, and among the fewest of any club who participated at all. Teeing off against the likes of David Rittich and Arturs Silovs to this point, Edmonton now has to figure out Jake Oettinger, who’s been one of the stingiest netminders in the post-season, and is no stranger to raising his game at this time of year.

Edmonton has the firepower to break through, but after watching Dallas quiet the star-studded Golden Knights and Avalanche — the latter entering the playoffs with the most prolific regular season offence in the league — simply relying on McDavid to make magic each night won’t be enough. An Oilers win comes only with all their key contributors making waves again, Hyman tops among them.

Stars Will Win If… Jake Oettinger can keep rolling

On the other side of that coin, Dallas needs Oettinger to continue the run of form he’s shown so far if they’re to keep rolling all the way to the Cup Final.

Fresh off a rough regular season that saw the 25-year-old post the worst numbers of his four-year NHL career, Oettinger’s come to life in the post-season — a crucial development for the Stars after a tumultuous few years for their starter. Two years ago, it was in this environment that the young ‘tender made his name, showing out in a seven-game series against Calgary that saw him post a dominant .954 save percentage, and put up one of the all-time playoff goaltending performances in the last of those tilts. But last year, it all went sideways for him — while the Stars clawed their way to the Western Conference Final, Oettinger finished the post-season having allowed the most goals of any netminder in the dance, letting a wild 55 by him through 19 games.

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This year, so far, he’s been the stabilizing presence Dallas expects him, and needs him, to be. Of all goaltenders who’ve appeared in more than just a handful of games in these playoffs, Oettinger’s .918 save percentage ranks third-best. Of those still playing, he ranks second, behind only New York’s Igor Shesterkin. And his efforts have been sorely needed given the offensive behemoths Dallas has had to take down to get here — a Vegas squad led by Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, and Jonathan Marchessault, an Avalanche team led by Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar, and the 140-point phenom MacKinnon.

Now, another test: an Oilers offence led by two of the most dynamic offensive talents in the game in McDavid and Draisaitl, who’ve thus far been the most prolific scorers of this post-season, despite looking like they still haven’t found their top level. A Stars win comes only if Oettinger can ensure they don’t find it in Round 3.

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