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Do it with defence: High-octane Oilers riding structure, strong penalty kill

Zach Hyman signed with the Edmonton Oilers knowing he would get an opportunity to fill the opposition net. Hyman celebrates after scoring against the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the NHL hockey Western Conference Stanley Cup playoff finals, in Dallas, Thursday, May 23, 2024.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tony Gutierrez

DALLAS - Zach Hyman signed with the Edmonton Oilers knowing he would get an opportunity to fill the opposition net.

The chance to play alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl was, quite simply, too good to pass up after the Toronto Maple Leafs decided to let him hit free agency in July 2021.

What the gritty winger might not have so easily envisioned at the time was the offensive juggernaut's star power backchecking like there's no tomorrow and throwing bodies in front of pucks in the defensive zone.

After a couple of decent playoff runs, however, that's a big part of an equation that has the Oilers just three wins from the Stanley Cup final — and seven from hockey's ultimate prize.

Edmonton leads the NHL's Western Conference final 1-0 after a solid, structured performance in Thursday's Game 1 that ended in a 3-2 triumph when McDavid scored in double overtime.

"A desire to win and learning what it takes to win," Hyman said Friday of the development he's seen from the Oilers' talented core. "Every year you learn what it takes and what you're not doing as well.

"Offensively, we've always been pretty good. But I think defensively as a group, everybody's taken that next step, that whatever-it-takes mentality."

The Oilers have scored 49 times to lead the playoffs and own a power play clicking at a red-hot 36.7 per cent, but they've also done it with defence this spring.

Edmonton is averaging 2.69 goals against in the post-season, while its penalty kill has neutralized 19 straight infractions — including a McDavid double-minor for high-sticking in Thursday's OT — to sit at a suffocating 92.5 per cent.

Oilers head coach Kris Knoblauch, hired in November with the team at the bottom of the overall standings, has watched his players buy into the cause.

"Personal accolades are great," said Knoblauch, whose team has six one-goal victories in these playoffs. "But with this group, it's about (something) much bigger than just an individual scoring a goal. It's about having success in the playoffs and being able to play as long as possible.

"There's no team that's had success in the playoffs that hasn't been able to commit to playing good defensive hockey."

That's not to say the Oilers aren't still keen to flip the switch and head the other way. And while McDavid and Draisaitl will always get the headlines, Hyman has carved out a 66-goal campaign to date — 54 in the regular season and 12 more to lead the playoffs — as a hard-nosed complementary piece.

With as many goals as the entire Leafs roster put up in their seven-game loss to the Boston Bruins, Hyman scored Edmonton's second Thursday on a sequence where he outmuscled two defenders in the slot after also assisting on Draisaitl's opener.

"Strength and will," Oilers defenceman Brett Kulak said. "He makes it look easy at times … people comment on his tap-in goals or whatever. It's not easy to get the puck there and get it in the net.

"It's just that mentality that's made him so successful."

Knoblauch knew Hyman, who lines up on McDavid's wing and is the No. 1 power-play unit's net-front presence, was a good player when he took the job just over seven months ago.

Just not this good.

"If there's a 50/50 battle for a puck, he's usually the one coming up with it," said the rookie coach. "You talk about the benefits of playing with a skilled player. Well, the benefit for a skilled player playing with a guy like Zach Hyman is you get the puck a lot more."

Hyman saw a fit with Edmonton's nucleus when he hit free agency after skating alongside Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Toronto.

"Wanted to play with the best players in the world," he said. "Wanted to go to the place that would have the best chance to win, and I thought it would be Edmonton.

"Very happy with the decision."

Similar to how the Oilers are feeling about their overall play at both ends of the rink.

DECISION LOOMING

Knoblauch said Adam Henrique (ankle injury) is close to a return, but wouldn't commit to his automatic inclusion with the Oilers having won three straight games dating back to the second round against the Vancouver Canucks.

The veteran centre hasn't played since Edmonton closed out the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the opening round.

"Very close," Knoblauch said of Henrique, acquired from the Anaheim Ducks ahead of March's trade deadline. "He's probably 98 per cent (and) could be in the lineup. Now we have to make a decision on what's best for our team.

"He hasn't played for a while, but a player like Adam would be a huge boost."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2024.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2024
The Canadian Press

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