Why Edmonton’s star player advantage grows with each playoff game

Gene Principe and Elliotte Friedman break down the Oilers thrilling double-OT win against the Stars, looking at Connor McDavid going through a whole spectrum of emotion in OT before scoring the winner and also touch on the dominant penalty kill.

After Matt Duchene scored in double overtime to push the Dallas Stars past the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, he gave a great interview where he talked about how he felt the game going long played to the Stars’ advantage.

He said of guys like Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar: “As much as those guys are superhuman, they’re still human. And so the longer that went, I looked over at the monitor between the bench and looked at the ice time, and it was a pretty big difference between their high-ends and our high-ends … so, we’ve talked about our depth all year…”  

The implication was that the heavy usage of Colorado’s top guys would wear them down more than the other players, take away the advantage of having the best offensive players in the series, and that would favour the deeper Stars.

And over the course of a single night, that’s a valid observation. The world’s fastest cars can’t go anywhere without fuel in the tank.

But the opposite is true over the grind of a months-long playoff run, where the workload accumulates for everyone, and we’re reminded that it’s a massive advantage to have the hares rather than a group of committed tortoises.

Depth is of course crucial to playoff success, but it’s at this time of year that “high-ends” drive the bus more than ever, and they benefit from the more average players slowing down.

In Game 1 against the Edmonton Oilers, the Stars looked borderline slow. They didn’t seem to have pop anywhere in their lineup, they weren’t overly physical, and none of their “high-ends” stood out (aside from a couple pucks popping free to Tyler Seguin, who had 52 points this season). It may have gone to double OT, but in the end the Oilers eked out a win on goals from the three best offensive forwards in the series, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Zach Hyman. (McDavid played north of 27 minutes, Hyman and Draisaitl were over 25, while only Wyatt Johnston got over 25 for Dallas.)

I’m of the belief that the first round of playoffs is the least meritocratic, and it’s certainly where we find the most absurd upsets, which happens for a few reasons.

With everyone at their healthiest, the speed of the game is insane. Players are running into one another, rattling the glass, firing pucks from everywhere, and it’s chaotic. Tensions run high, and some team is always “setting the tone.” There’s real randomness in that.

That early, average players have the legs and drive to work on a guy like McDavid, to cut him off and hold him in secret and chase him as far as their legs will take them. They’ve got the fresh commitment to pack it in and block shots and unite as a team. We often see elite players slowed by this in the early rounds, as fans of some other Canadian teams may have noticed. It’s hard out there for the scorers, to begin with.

But I do think that as the playoffs go on, those average players become barnacles on a speedboat. They start to sustain some of their own bumps and bruises, and get the heavy legs that come with the accumulation of game after game after game of chasing around the big dogs.

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Of course, being hunted by “depth players” has an effect on McDavid and Draisaitl, or any great player who goes deep in the playoffs. But you’ll see their quality shine through over time. Fatigue works on players like wear on a t-shirt: The first few times you sport a cheap one it doesn’t look any different from a quality one. But with some wear on both, the quality one stays quality, while the cheapies get that weird collar and somehow stretch and shrink simultaneously. They get worse.

This isn’t to take away from what “depth” does for a team, or to minimize other aspects of the game. The Oilers have been great defensively in the post-season, protecting their goalies. And in theory the Stars can get goals from farther down their lineup, which is great too.

It’s just that by the time Round 3 comes around, games often appear less frenetic, almost like everyone recognizes what a marathon a playoff series truly is. A slightly slowed game may sound great to those “depth” players, but this is where the big dogs will truly eat. In Game 1, the Oilers’ top-three forwards by expected goals were the three forwards who scored. They stood out in an otherwise stagnant game.

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Still, Dallas did a lot of things that make the game hard for Edmonton’s best players. They block shots, they protect the middle extremely well, and they did those things in Game 1 as they did in the first two rounds.

But it looked like they forgot that they can’t just try to barricade the castle doors, and rather will have to go attack a little bit on their own.

If you let McDavid and Draisaitl and Hyman (to say nothing of Evan Bouchard) handle the puck and carry the O-zone possession time while hoping for an advantage as games go on, you’re going to lose to this Oilers team.

The Stars have better in them, from their “high-ends” to their depth. But this is the time of year when the cream rises to the top and the Oilers’ best players are going to become an advantage that Dallas’ reliance on depth will struggle to match.

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