Will Oilers tweak their defensive pairs? Plus, how to beat Sergei Bobrovsky, more Cup Final notes

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Will the Edmonton Oilers defensive pairings look different for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final and, if yes, how drastic will the changes be?

“We are open for some experiments, some changing things around a little bit,” coach Kris Knoblauch said. “We haven’t decided on anything yet.”

As Knoblauch said after a 3-0 loss, it might be a stretch to suggest the Oilers dominated the Florida Panthers in the series opener despite the 32-17 shot differential. But they were the better team by just about every metric.

The difference is the Oilers couldn’t beat Sergei Bobrovsky and the Oilers allowed two five-on-five goals before an empty-netter in the dying seconds.

Both goals occurred with Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci on the ice — and they played a role in them happening even if they weren’t entirely to blame.

After struggling early in the playoffs, the Nurse-Ceci duo had mostly been separated since Game 4 of the Vancouver series — a span of 10 contests.

After Saturday’s performance, the Nurse-Ceci postseason numbers look even bleaker. The Oilers have been outscored 12-4, outshot 97-74 and out-attempted 204-147 in 167 minutes at five-on-five with Nurse and Ceci skating together — per Natural Stat Trick.

“If you look at actual goals scored for and against, it’s not favorable,” Knoblauch said. “The expected goals for and against (ratio) doesn’t paint the same picture at all. Completely different.”

Nurse and Ceci have a 34.4 expected goals percentage at five-on-five in the playoffs, according to NST.

“We’re always balancing on what’s best for those two players but also what’s best for all six of our defensemen,” Knoblauch said. “As a coaching staff, we always have to make those decisions. Not easy and sometimes you have to give a little to get something else.”

Nurse and Ceci were reunited on Saturday in part because Knoblauch didn’t like how the Oilers defended in the series clincher against the Stars. Another part of the equation is lefty Brett Kulak, who moved to the right side beside Nurse for the last three games of the Dallas matchup. Kulak didn’t feel he was contributing enough on his weak wide.

Philip Broberg has shown well over the last four games since coming into the lineup. He’s not expected to be removed. Any chance of Vincent Desharnais being reinserted would likely have to come at Ceci’s expense. Barring breaking up the top pair of Mattias Ekholm and Evan Bouchard, the only other option is putting Nurse and Broberg together.

“Throughout the playoffs, we’ve been open to trying things and some have worked, some haven’t,” Knoblauch said. “Broby’s been outstanding for us. We’ve put him in a lot of difficult situations.”

How to beat ‘Bob’

The Oilers coaching staff, led by goalie coach Dustin Schwartz, provides detailed scouting reports to the team’s shooters on opposing netminders. There’s a goalie silhouette on a whiteboard in the dressing room with tips and reminders of weaknesses.

The Bobrovsky book: aim high. Of the 38 goals the Panthers goalie has allowed in the playoffs, all but seven of them have been upstairs — according to Craig Simpson on the Sportsnet broadcast.

That’s all well and good to know, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. It’s just that sometimes that’s hard to pull off or consider in real time.

“You have what the scouting report is, but you’re also reading the play and trying to make the best play that you can,” he said.

Nugent-Hopkins had one of the Oilers’ best chances when he was sprung for a breakaway by Leon Draisaitl late in the first period. He deked to his backhand and tried to beat Bobrovsky to the right post, but the goalie was there with his left pad.

“If I could do it again, I’m going to try and get that up over his pad,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Even then, he’s really quick side-to-side. When he gets moving side to side, you want to get it high. That’s your best chance.

“He’s an athletic goalie. He’s going to take up most of the bottom of the net. We had a few looks like that where you think you got him, but he doesn’t quit on it. If I go back or have a little more time on that play, I probably do it a little bit different.”

The Oilers had 13 high-danger attempts at five-on-five and five more on the power play, per NST.

“There were some missed opportunities, whether we just missed nets or just didn’t get the shot that we wanted to,” Knoblauch said. “It’s fair to say he played really well but, there are things we can do that are in our control that we could have made more of our chances.”

Florida has many big-name players, but Eeto Luostarinen, who was so good for the Panthers in the clinching game against the Rangers, continues to fly under the radar. Coach Paul Maurice loved his game in the opener.

Remember, this is a kid who broke his tibia in the final game of last year’s Eastern Conference final and was lost in the Stanley Cup Final against Vegas.

“We always thought highly of him last year, but I think absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Maurice said. “When he missed that series, we really noticed it. It changed so much of what we do. He’s been a big player for us this year. He’s one of those guys on the team that doesn’t get mentioned first but come into a room and he’s one of those guys you need.

“He’s one of those all-around players, he grinds hard, he makes good plays, blocks shots. Probably focused on the defensive side of the game so he doesn’t get quite as much notoriety but really important part of our game.”

Plus, the Panthers media relations team got him to do a TV interview after winning the Prince of Wales Trophy, so Maurice quipped that he’s growing.

Speaking of Luostarinen, he was excited about the Stanley Cup being under a spotlight on the ice during the anthems before Game 1. The NHL says that’s the first time that has been done since the 1960s, but it was quite the reminder to both teams what will be at stake this series.

“Pretty cool moment,” Luostarinen said. “It’s so close, but still a lot of work to do. Just got to work hard to get it.”

Evander Kane was about as much of a beast as the Oilers could have hoped for in the 2022 playoffs. He scored 13 goals in 15 games. He was a physical force. He neutralized current Panther Matthew Tkachuk in the Calgary series.

That version of Kane has been missing this postseason. He has four goals and eight points in 19 games.

“Obviously, he’s not the Evander Kane of a couple of years ago or even when I came here,” Knoblauch said. “He was scoring at will. He was putting up a pretty good season and obviously he had to take some time off with some injuries and maintenance days.

“Evander’s been good for our team,” Knoblauch said. “He’s been contributing and maybe not showing up on the scoresheet as much as he has in the past, but still contributing to our team. We wouldn’t be in the Stanley Cup Final if Evander hadn’t been playing throughout the playoffs.”

And that’s just it. In fairness to Kane, he’s clearly playing hurt. He said he had been dealing with a sports hernia entering the playoffs. He played just 4:39 in Game 6 against Dallas because of an ailment.

“It’s a hard time of year to play,” Draisaitl said. “Everybody is playing through things. Everybody is dealing with some things. He wants to be out there, and he wants to help our group. He’s giving it everything he’s got.”

Oilers power play not exactly shut down

Sure, Edmonton went 0-for-3 on the power play, but the Panthers know they didn’t exactly keep them from getting chances.

The Oilers had six shots on the power play, nine scoring chances and five high-danger chances. Bobrovsky was good, and the Oilers just missed on some Grade A’s.

“Obviously they have a great power play,” defenseman Gustav Forsling said. “You can see how effective they can be. We did a good job. We kept them on the outside, and let Bob see the puck most of the time. We’ve got to stick with it and keep putting the pressure on them.”

The Panthers also know how difficult it will continue to be to keep McDavid off the score sheet. As Niko Mikkola said humorously, you always know as a defenseman that McDavid can “dangle you, but that’s why we have a Bobby.”

Tremendous third-period team

The Panthers are one physically fit team. That has been a theme of these playoffs, something they credit for being the best third-period team all postseason in the league.

They also play a relentless style that seems to grind teams down. As outplayed as they were in the first two periods in Game 1, the Panthers really liked their third in which they allowed just seven shots and got a Luostarinen empty-net goal.

In 18 playoff games (13-5), the Panthers have outscored opponents 25-11 in the third period and outshot them 185-133.

“I think it’s confidence in our game that we want to build,” said captain Aleksander Barkov. “Obviously we want to have good first and second periods as well, but we want to keep building every single period. We had our best at the end of the game. There is no real theory to that, but it’s all about the hard work and just keep grinding and keep believing, trusting the systems.”

(Photo of Sergei Bobrovsky and Connor McDavid: Joel Auerbach / Getty Images)

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