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Can the Oilers win Game 4? Thoughts on lineup and tactical changes, plus score predictions

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Published in Hockey
Saturday, 15 June 2024 06:15

Through the first three rounds, the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs were a showcase for the Edmonton Oilers and their superstar-laden offense.

The final round of the 2024 Stanley Cup playoffs has not gone so well. Down 0-3 to the Florida Panthers, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl & Co. need a win in Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+) to avoid the sweep.

Whether through an altered lineup, tactics or something else entirely, something needs to change to avoid that ignominious outcome. Our reporters and analysts are here to describe how the Oilers can win Game 4 -- and offer their thoughts on whether they will.

What has been the biggest reason for the Oilers' lack of scoring?

Ryan S. Clark, NHL reporter: It appears to be a mix of the Panthers' system and their personnel. In the regular season, the Panthers allowed the fewest scoring chances per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play, were fourth in fewest high-danger goals allowed at 5-on-5 and seventh in fewest high-danger chances per 60 at 5-on-5.

They've found a way to carry that over to the playoffs, suppressing other high-powered teams such as the New York Rangers. As for the personnel, everything they do from a forward standpoint starts with two-time Selke Trophy winner Aleksander Barkov. They also have excellent shutdown defensemen led by Gustav Forsling, plus a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in Sergei Bobrovsky.

Arda Öcal, NHL broadcaster: The obvious answer is "the top five Oilers playoff scorers have not scored this series," but Connor McDavid has still factored in on at least half of every Oilers goal this postseason, including this Stanley Cup Final (the only other player that did that in the playoffs for a team that made the Final was someone who wore No. 99).

The Panthers deserve a lot of credit for shutting them all down -- particularly Barkov, who has been stellar; Forsling, who has been the best defenseman this postseason; and Bobrovsky, who has showed up for pretty much every high-danger moment the Oilers have been able to muster. The whole-team effort has been truly impressive.

Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: There are three fallen teams in this postseason field that know the agony of trying to score against the Panthers. The complete buy-in defensively from Florida's entire lineup makes it near impossible for teams to generate truly high-quality scoring chances -- and even when they do, Bobrovsky has been there to make the top-tier saves necessary for the Panthers to be on the brink of winning the franchise's first Cup.

Forsling and Aaron Ekblad have been a formidable top pairing, and each of the Panthers' defensemen executes his role well. Florida keeps skaters to the outside to give Bobrovsky a chance at tracking pucks cleanly. It's an unbeatable combination.

Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: They're playing the Florida Panthers. This is as good as it gets for a defensive team in the postseason. So much has been made of the Oilers' top players not having a goal in this Stanley Cup Final. Ask Nikita Kucherov about it. Or David Pastrnak. Or Mika Zibanejad. Or Artemi Panarin. None of those players scored at 5-on-5 against Florida in the playoffs.

Paul Maurice has his team playing as a five-man unit. Having Barkov and Sam Reinhart on the same line is just unfair -- they have a 1.29 goals against per 60 minutes while on the ice together. And if there is a crack in the wall, if mistakes are made, they end up in the glove or on the pads of Bobrovsky.

What can the Oilers do to keep the Panthers off the board?

Clark: Avoid the sort of compounding mistakes that lead to the Panthers having a big period. Game 3 saw the Panthers score three goals in the second period, and those sort of exchanges are devastating. It's something the Oilers know well, because that was the fourth time they've given up three in a period this postseason.

Limiting the miscues that lead to the Panthers finding the openings to score that many goals in a period is going to play a vital role in the Oilers trying to force a Game 5.

Öcal: The Oilers simply need Stuart Skinner to be elite the rest of the way. There's no room for error anymore. There has been one reverse sweep in Cup Final history, and it happened in the 1940s.

If the Oilers want to have any ounce of hope of even winning a game, they need their goalie to win one for them. An .893 save percentage just won't cut it against the Panthers' offensive depth.

Shilton: Edmonton hasn't just been trying to beat Florida. The Oilers are often attempting to overcome their own errors in the process. Giveaways are back-breakers at all times of the season, but especially now when the Panthers are so adept at capitalizing on those freebies.

The key for Edmonton is to make Florida work for its ice. That's how the Panthers are making this series so difficult on the Oilers. Florida's attack comes in waves, and Edmonton has to find its own way to keep the Panthers from continuously leeching their momentum.

Wyshynski: Stop giving them gifts like it's their baby shower. Game 3 was trending in the Oilers' direction before they coughed up the puck twice and allowed an odd-man rush to develop from deep in their attacking zone. They gave up three goals in 6:19 and that was the game -- as Leon Draisaitl said afterwards, the Oilers were chasing it the rest of the game.

Stop helping the Panthers win the Cup. As if they need the help.

What lineup change should Kris Knoblauch make for Game 4?

Clark: Simple as it sounds: whatever line combinations that can lead to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl scoring goals.

McDavid has two assists in this series, while Draisaitl had one in Game 3. Yet the fact neither of them has scored comes at a point where the Oilers are not only facing elimination, but they're getting goals -- albeit not many -- from players in secondary and tertiary scoring roles. Finding a way to get McDavid and Draisaitl, among others, in situations in which they can convert scoring chances to goals could be an answer.

But that also goes back to another realization: Kris Knoblauch has already made a number of adjustments that still have the Oilers searching for answers as they try to avoid being swept.

Öcal: At this point, you try anything and everything because your back is against the wall. To Coach Knoblauch's credit, he has been tinkering with the lines, whether it's bringing Sam Carrick in for Corey Perry, moving Adam Henrique up to the second line or splitting up Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci.

Do Ryan McLeod and Warren Foegele move up because they contributed in Game 3? McDavid and Draisaitl together hasn't been effective against the Panthers, which is certainly a problem.

Shilton: Knoblauch has the best and worst problem: Two of the world's best players are in his lineup, and two of the world's best players can't seem to score in this series. What's the answer there? It's the only question that matters.

Knoblauch might as well look at every option the Oilers have to give the top six an optimal chance of success in Game 4. Is that splitting up McDavid and Draisaitl? Keeping them on one line with a puck distributor who can tee them up? Does Knoblauch rotate forwards in that position?

Edmonton needs to see its stars be stars in Game 4 in order to feel like there is a still a chance to make a series out of this.

Wyshynski: The Oilers have the same problem the Panthers had when they lost in the Stanley Cup Final last season: They're running out of healthy players.

I don't even know whether Sam Gagner fits that description at this point. He hasn't played since April 18. He played 9:26 in that game. Again, I have no idea whether Gagner can play. I am confident that if he did, the roof would come off the arena on his first shift. And that's the kind of vibe shift this team needs. Look, could he be any more ineffective than some of the team's other depth forwards?

The final score of Game 4 will be ______.

Clark: 4-2 Panthers. The Oilers showed a level of desperation late in Game 3 that leads one to wonder whether they can replicate that throughout the entirety of Game 4. But where it gets a bit complicated is the fact Paul Maurice and his coaching staff have made the needed adjustments throughout the series.

That's not to say Edmonton can't find a breakthrough and force a Game 5. But when the Panthers have found numerous ways to score goals, prevent goals and fend off a team the way they did in Game 3? It's possible that it's too much for the Oilers to overcome.

Öcal: 6-1 Panthers. The Oilers' best chance was in the third period of Game 3, where they got two goals to bring it to within one with about five minutes to go, but couldn't find the equalizer. I wouldn't be shocked to see Edmonton win to force a Game 5, but this does feel like a sweep.

Shilton: 3-2 Oilers. The Oilers were one outstanding Sergei Bobrovsky save in Game 3 from forcing overtime. Edmonton's performance in that entire third period was gutsy and tough, and if they can channel that energy for the entirety of Game 4, there's a solid chance there's a Game 5 back in Florida. And it would be a fitting swan song for Edmonton's season to get that one Cup Final win at home for its fans.

Wyshynski: 4-2 Oilers. Because that would be the most hilarious outcome, as everyone sulks onto their flights to travel a Stanley Cup Final-record 2,541 miles back to Fort Lauderdale to simply delay the inevitable.

Famously, there have been 28 instances of a team taking a 3-0 in the Stanley Cup Final, with those teams winning the Cup 27 times. Even if the Oilers manage to send the series back to South Florida with a Game 4 win, 25 of those 28 series have ended in five games. This series is over. It's just a matter of when. And for those of us who remember the palpable sadness of media members having to schlep all the way back to Los Angeles in 2012 after the Kings took a 3-0 lead but the New Jersey Devils won Game 4, it's time for a redux.

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