Oilers have their power play back, a victory away from the Stanley Cup Final



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DALLAS — Those opposing the Edmonton Oilers can hope to only contain their power play because it can’t be stopped over the long haul. The Dallas Stars are realizing that.

The Oilers’ ultimate weapon finally produced, getting two goals in that situation from Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to snap their 0-for-6 skid in the series and break through after a 1-for-17 stretch going back to the second round.

It was the difference in a 3-1 win Friday in Game 5 of the Western Conference final, a result that leaves the Oilers one victory away from a berth in their first Stanley Cup Final in 18 years.

“We got the job done,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “Special teams can win you games, and that’s why we work so much on them throughout the season. It’s for moments like this.”

Some production on the power play was long overdue for the Oilers even if chances have been hard to come by in this round. Their man advantage, when at its best, is nothing like the sport has ever seen.

The Los Angeles Kings sure know that more than anyone. The Oilers capitalized on half of their 18 chances in the first round. The Vancouver Canucks got that message in doses, notably early in that series.

But the Stars had avoided any pain through discipline, fortune and some combination of their penalty killing and the Oilers just being out of sync.

That changed at the most opportune time Friday for the Oilers, showing how this power play can elevate them from a great team to an elite one. It scored on two of its three tries in Game 5.

“It’s tough to generate offence in the playoffs at this time of year,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid said. “Five-on-five, you’re going against good teams, solid teams.

“The power play can be an advantage, and our power play has been doing it for a long time together. We know what we’re doing out there, and we want to contribute. We want to be a factor.”

The Oilers are like poetry in motion when things are flowing wonderfully. There’s no weapon they don’t have at their disposal. It’s basically an unstoppable beast.

McDavid is the magician, the ultimate rover and the visionary. He carries the puck up the ice in a way few around the NHL can even compare. Leon Draisaitl is the trigger man with perhaps the best one-timer in the league and certainly with the best range. Zach Hyman might be the best net-front guy going. Evan Bouchard can blast the puck with a scary mixture of accuracy and power.

And then there’s Nugent-Hopkins. He facilitates things on the left side and isn’t shy about unleashing a wrist shot.

“It’s pretty special to watch,” goalie Stuart Skinner said. “It’s such an elite power play for a reason. You’ve got incredible players on all sides of the ice. Watching them do their work is very impressive. What else is there to say? It’s just very enjoyable to watch.”

But given the sublime talent on the ice, Nugent-Hopkins is often underestimated as merely the other guy.

Friday, he was the star of the greatest show on ice.

Nugent-Hopkins’ two goals came in very different ways, too. The first came when he got to a rebound ahead of the Stars’ Ty Dellandrea and backhanded home a shot. The second happened when he received a pass from Draisaitl off the rush and ripped that wrister past Jake Oettinger’s glove.

“For as much as our power play gets talked about about our skill, it starts from our work,” McDavid said, Nugent-Hopkins’ first tally no doubt in mind.

“It starts from winning pucks back, getting pucks off the wall, entries, being clean on entries. It’s all the little things that set our power play up to be successful.”

It’s not like the Oilers had been useless on the power play in the series while not scoring. They were getting their looks. They almost scored on their only chance in Game 4 as a McDavid sharp-angle shot hit Oettinger’s stick, which was lying along the goal line, and deflected wide.

Still, the zero in the goal column was so odd — and hard to miss.

“We always have that pressure from within ourselves,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “We expect a lot from each other and from ourselves.

“We’ve been pushing. They obviously don’t take a lot of penalties. You don’t have three, four, five opportunities a game to find your rhythm. Going into tonight, we wanted to make sure that if we only got one, we were going to make it count.”

It was fitting that Nugent-Hopkins was the catalyst in the latest biggest game for the McDavid-and-Draisaitl era Oilers.

There have been so many missteps and failures with two of the best players in the NHL and two of the most prolific playoff producers in league history on the roster. But it’s Nugent-Hopkins who’s endured far more than anyone as the guy drafted first in the 2011 draft and having played for nine coaches — 10 if interim Craig MacTavish is included.

Nugent-Hopkins was one hope of the leanest years who’s still around to see this thing through. It’s no wonder he’s so beloved in Edmonton — and in the dressing room.

“He was my favourite player growing up,” said Skinner, an Edmonton native. “Being able to play with him, I’ve learned there’s a lot more to him than just hockey. That’s been one of the coolest things I’ve been able to watch and (I’ve) become great friends with this guy.”

But there’s more to it than the juxtaposition of him being the franchise’s longest-serving player and a 30-year-old father as the baby face he broke into the NHL with has hardly changed.

Draisaitl pumped Nugent-Hopkins’ tires after the morning skate without a hint of jealousy — though maybe a touch of envy.

“He’s just so valuable in every facet of the game,” Draisaitl said. “He touches every part of the game.

“He’s just such a smart, good hockey player. He’s a coach’s favourite player in the world.”

Coach Kris Knoblauch then joked that the one earning that distinction depended on the day. There was no question who it was after Friday’s game.

“I saw Ryan and told him, tonight, he’s my favourite,” Knoblauch said.

The power-play goals he scored hugely factored into that reasoning. It’s no wonder; the Oilers needed that part of their game to start doing its thing again.

Their power play has been the backbone of the team ever since Glen Gulutzan assumed the duties ahead of the 2018-19 season. It’s won them countless games as the team has morphed from a pretender to a contender.

The Oilers no longer rely on it to win anymore, though. It’s simply the accoutrement.

They’ve shown that as their five-on-five play has taken continuous steps to improve, capped by being the better team in that capacity in this series against Dallas.

“Even if we’re not getting power plays, we can still win games just playing five-on-five,” Knoblauch said. “We defend really well. I don’t think we get enough recognition for how good the guys are, and how committed they are to playing good defensive hockey, and that’s not just through the playoffs.

“But the opportunities to get three power plays definitely improves our chances at winning.”

That’s just it. The power play — with the help of more chances than they’ve received in any game this series — can put them over the edge.

Just one win away from the Stanley Cup Final, the Oilers will surely be in it if the power play keeps producing against the Stars.

“Especially in big times when we need them, they come out to play,” Skinner said. “We’re going to need them in the upcoming games here. We’re going to need them next game here.”

(Photo of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins celebrating his first-period goal Friday against the Dallas Stars: Chris Jones / USA Today)





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