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There’s a saying about NHL teams that go on to win the Stanley Cup: they can win whatever kind of game you throw at them. They can out-skate a skating team. They can out-check a checking team.  They can out-tactic a tactical team.

The best teams are rock, paper and scissors all at the same time.

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On Monday night — to break an alarming seven game losing streak in the first game of NHL playoff series — the Edmonton Oilers out-Kinged the Los Angeles Kings.

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What best defines the Kings? As recent Kings coach Todd McLellan, the mastermind of the system that Kings still play, put it on the Cam & Strick podcast this week: “The L.A. Kings play the game a little bit different than a lot of teams do. Checking comes first.”

On Monday, the Oilers out-checked the checkers.

This year the Kings gave up the third fewest goals in the NHL, just 210, 2.56 per game. By comparison, Edmonton ranked 10th, 236 goals, 2.88 per game.

But in beating the Kings 7-4, Edmonton beat the Kings at their own game. They out-Kinged them.

The Kings strategy is to play low-even hockey, to keep goals rare and dear, to lock it down in the neutral zone and get after you hard and fierce in their own defensive zone, taking away any kind of time and space to make plays, and making certain — more than anything else — to cover off the shooter in the slot.

But on Monday the Oilers locked it down better in the n-zone, came after the Kings harder in d-zone coverage, and took care to smother Kings attackers in the slot in front of goalie Stuart Skinner.

It was one of Edmonton’s best defensive games of the year, maybe its best one.

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Grade A shot counts tell the story

In their four regular season games against Los Angeles, Edmonton mustered 46 Grade A shots while the Kings had 47. But in Game One, Edmonton had 18 Grade A shots to just ten for Los Angeles.

When Leon Draisaitl put the game away with an early third period power play goal, the Grade A shots were 15 for Edmonton, six for Los Angeles.

Edmonton had six Grade A shots off rush chances, the Kings just three, a testament to the way the Oilers moved the puck fast and sharp and also to the way Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl attacked with the puck.

But the Oilers also made sure to have at least three men back in the neutral zone when the Kings rushed up ice. Edmonton gave up just one odd-man rush, a breakaway to Vitkor Arvidsson off a neutral zone turnover.

Edmonton was the better team — and it wasn’t that close.

Warren Foegele battles for the puck along the wall against the LA Kings in Game 1 of the playoffs
EDMONTON, CANADA – APRIL 22: Warren Foegele #37 of the Edmonton Oilers battles against Matt Roy #3 of the Los Angeles Kings during the second period in Game One of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on April 22, 2024, in Edmonton, Canada. Photo by Codie McLachlan /Getty Images

Fear and loathing in L.A.

All this brought on some major consternation among Kings fans and pundits.

The Frozen Royalty podcast tweeted out: “Edmonton has toyed with the Los Angeles Kings all night. They’ve been able to do anything they want, while the Kings have no answers whatsoever… It’s just one game, but the Kings look hopelessly overmatched at this point.”

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Writer Dennis Bernstein of The Fourth Period tweeted: “Universal explanation for Kings loss from Kempe/Doughty/Hiller post game: Rush chances. Penalty kill

“F3 coverage was lacking for rush chances. No real reasons for PK other than Oilers great skill.”

“It was a troubling start,” wrote Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times.”The Kings wanted to set the tone and instead they came up flat, conceding the first four goals while giving up 45 shots overall.”

Drew Doughty told the L.A. media scrum it was tough on the defense when McDavid and the rest of his mates were flying through a neutral zone. “We got to fix that,” Doughty said to Eric Stephens of The Athletic. “We know that. We’ll fix it.”

No doubt the Kings will tighten it up in Game Two. Having now lost, the Kings will be that much more determined. They threw 67 hits in Game, three times more than their seasonal average of 21 per game, and the most hits of any team in Game One of the 2024 playoffs. Expect more of that.

But also expect the Kings to be far more focused on McDavid and Draisaitl in the neutral zone.

Rock, paper and scissors all at the same time

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Ryan Nugent-Hopkins scores on Cam Talbot
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins #93 of the Edmonton Oilers celebrates a goal against goaltender Cam Talbot #39 of the Los Angeles Kings during the second period in Game One of the First Round of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Rogers Place on April 22, 2024, in Edmonton, Canada. Photo by Codie McLachlan /Getty Images

The win was a signal that the Oilers are ready to seriously challenge for supremacy in the 2024 playoffs, but that’s all it was.

Just one signal.

In previous seasons against the Kings, it took Edmonton five or six games for the team to finally find its best defensive game, and Edmonton has never been able to play consistently strong defence in the playoffs in the entire McDavid Era.

In Game One, they demonstrated they know just how important that is, important enough to get it right from the start.

As mentioned, the Oil always made sure to have one forwards helping out in the neutral zone against each and every Kings rush attempt.

The forwards also helped cover off dangerous shooters moving into the slot area, something this group of forwards has been notoriously poor at doing at times. We also rarely saw poor puck management from the forwards in the o-zone, the kind that had Corey Perry barking at Evander Kane a few weeks ago.

Finally, the Oil’s d-men made good decisions. You didn’t see rash pinches, leading to 2-on-1 breaks. You rarely saw ill-advised d-man rushes up-ice into the sharp teeth of the opposing defence, leading to a turnover. And you almost always saw the d-men fanatically taking the body when the Kings had the puck, staying on the right side of their man, and making sure there was one d-man at all times in the defensive slot.

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Darnell Nurse and Cody Ceci had their best game in months. This pairing had been making all kinds of mistakes in recent months, but they cranked it up and were physical, sound and solid. They didn’t go on pointless rushes or poor pinches. They covered off that net front like their team’s Stanley Cup chances counted on it.

They kept it simple. They kept it safe. That’s all Oilers fan ask.

Yes, they were responsible on a couple of weird fluke goals against in garbages time, but what of it? If you’re obsessing on that just now, and not their overall defensive strength, maybe check your bias.

In Game Two, the Oilers need to focus on smart, sound and physical defensive hockey first, second, third, fourth and fifth . They’ve got to focus on it every single game in the 2024 playoffs.

If they do that, they will be the NHL’s hardest out.

That’s what they have to be for the Kings in Game Two.

A sledgehammer of a physical team, a blanket of a defensive team and the sharp spear point of brilliant attacking squad.

Rock, paper and scissors all at the same time.

Can they do it? Again, we await to see if there’s another signal that Edmonton is ready to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup.

At the Cult of Hockey

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