McDavid vs. Kesler a pivotal matchup for Oilers, Ducks

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In the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers proved they could win a series even without superstar centre Connor McDavid dominating the scoresheet.

They will be hard-pressed to win a second-round series the same way, and McDavid’s performance against the Anaheim Ducks could well determine whether or not the Oilers advance.

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Obviously, then, stopping McDavid is going to be a key component of Anaheim’s game plan. The task is going to fall in large measure on the shoulders of Selke candidate Ryan Kesler, though he downplayed that aspect of the series on Monday.

At almost the same time, Edmonton head coach Todd McLellan took pains to point out that there’s a lot more to both teams’ game plans than a head-to-head tilt between Kesler and McDavid.

“I’m not going to share what our game plan is with you or anybody,” he said in response to a question about line matching. “It’s easy to look for the simple match. The simple match right now is Kesler on Connor. It’s the simple one. But there are always secondary ones that really come into play in the series.”

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, left, and Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler battle during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid, left, and Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Kesler battle during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2017. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

The protests are less telling than the fact both sides are talking about this incredibly obvious matchup. Over McDavid’s career, he’s spent more minutes at 5-on-5 playing against Marc-Edouard Vlasic than against any other defenceman, and the contest between them at times looked like it might define the series with San Jose.

Among forwards, that distinction falls to Kesler. The two have played 77 minutes of even-strength against each other. The only other forwards that McDavid has played even an hour against are Kesler’s linemates, Jakob Silfverberg and Andrew Cogliano.

In those 77 minutes, goals have tended to favour the Oilers:

This is a tiny slice of time, just over an hour, that we’re looking at here and so it’s dangerous to arrive at any far-reaching conclusions.

On the whole over these two seasons, Kesler and his linemates have done a pretty decent job of sawing off the territorial battle against McDavid and his linemates, with each side getting roughly 70 shot attempts.

Yet McDavid was obviously dangerous every time he was in the offensive zone. He put 10 shots on net, scoring two goals, and setting up a third. That works out to about eight shots per hour, roughly in line with his career average, meaning that even though his line didn’t get a lot of time in the scoring end of the rink, McDavid himself still got roughly as many opportunities as he usually does.

Having said that, we’re talking about a tiny number of goals here, six in total between both teams. Even the shot-attempts data is so limited that we can’t feel overly confident in it. Expecting such a small goals number to be predictive is lunacy. On balance, these totals show that Kesler’s line is at least potentially capable of competing on a relatively even footing with McDavid’s unit.

If they can do that, the Ducks will have done well. They don’t have to win the series in those Kesler-McDavid minutes — they just need to avoid losing it.

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McLellan mentioned all the secondary matchups that come into play after Kesler-McDavid, and he was right to do so. Somebody, probably Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, will have to go head-to-head with Ryan Getzlaf. Somebody else on the Oilers roster will have to contend with a nasty looking third line which boasts both Corey Perry and Rickard Rakell. Both of these feats will need to be accomplished without the benefit of last change.

It’s not certain that Edmonton loses those matchups, as Nugent-Hopkins did good work against Joe Pavelski in the first round and depth forwards like David Desharnais and Zack Kassian contributed timely scoring, too. The more that McDavid and running mate Leon Draisaitl can do, though, the less the Oilers will need to rely on their secondary scorers to keep them alive.

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