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Oilers-Kings grudge match hinges on 2 key battles

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The Edmonton Oilers stomped the Los Angeles Kings 7-4 on Monday to open the third straight playoff clash between the Pacific Division rivals. Battles at both ends of the ice will influence what happens in the rest of the series.

Kings vs. Oilers PP

Codie McLachlan / Getty Images

The Kings won't be able to finally oust the Oilers if their adept penalty kill caves. Their 86.4% kill rate was the NHL's second-best in the regular season. In Game 1, though, Edmonton's three goals on four power plays inflated Connor McDavid's ridiculous stat line and recalled a previous assault.

Edmonton's power play went 9-for-16 in last year's Kings series on a mere 2.67 opportunities per game, one of the lowest totals around the league in the round. The combination of brisk puck movement and blasts from the flank or point from the McDavid-Leon Draisaitl-Evan Bouchard trio - a brilliant constellation of shooting threats - proved overpowering. Draisaitl, Zach Hyman, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scored Monday because of their wheeling and dealing.

The Oilers led the 2023 postseason in power-play goals with 18 despite playing 10 fewer games than the eventual Stanley Cup champs, the Vegas Golden Knights. Their eye-popping 46.2% conversion rate over two rounds is easily the best mark in the NHL historical database, which dates to 1978.

The unit slipped this season, but only as low as fourth in the league at 26.3%. Of McDavid's 100 assists, he dished 37 with the man advantage. Draisaitl sniped 21 power-play goals, some at sharp angles from the corner or the bottom of the faceoff circle. A worker bee with deft touch, Hyman can score by cleaning up rebounds, tipping Bouchard's bombs, or redirecting McDavid's visionary backdoor feeds. Nugent-Hopkins' presence is a luxury.

Guarding the whole quintet is difficult. McDavid and Hyman were enough of a handful at even strength in Game 1, connecting for multiple goals on McDavid's spinning passes. Hyman had a hat trick, four of McDavid's five assists were primaries, and Kings penalties drawn by Hyman, Draisaitl, and Vincent Desharnais were punished on the scoreboard. The Kings' season will end soon if they're swamped on special teams.

Oilers vs. Kings attack

Curtis Comeau / Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

Gaffes and oversights in their own end - be it giveaways, falls, negligent coverage, or halfhearted backchecking - undermined talented Edmonton teams in past postseasons.

These Oilers can run up the score, but they're also stingier than their predecessors. The same defensive personnel that narrowly resisted the Kings last spring tightened up this season. Edmonton ranked fifth in goals allowed (2.68 per night) over Kris Knoblauch's 69 games as head coach.

The misadventures of Darnell Nurse (deflection off skate) and Cody Ceci (detonation of stick) helped the Kings score but happened too late to matter Monday. The Oilers' sturdiness in front of Stuart Skinner earlier in the game helped spark their outburst. Rushes that produced Edmonton's first few goals originated with strong work in the defensive zone.

Edmonton is equipped to avoid last year's issues, like the inability to hold leads. The Oilers led in all six of their 2023 playoff defeats to the Kings or Golden Knights. Feeble once the floodgates opened, they gave up three straight goals within a period in every loss to Vegas. They didn't shield the interior in big moments, like when Jonathan Marchessault's gritty natural hat trick sealed Edmonton's elimination.

In Game 1, Skinner's breakaway save on Viktor Arvidsson bailed out Mattias Ekholm, who'd committed a neutral-zone turnover, and promptly led to Hyman's second goal. Cleaner breakouts that Ekholm initiated by coolly eluding Kings forecheckers facilitated tallies from Hyman and Adam Henrique. Edmonton protected the house, then headmanned the puck to turn defense into offense. That formula wins games and series.

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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