If you’re going to play rope-a-dope hockey the way the Edmonton Oilers did Monday, that’s fine. It’s a long season, and the Wild have always given Edmonton trouble.
So go into St. Paul, limit the chances, and try and squeak out a 2-1 road win on a night when your best offensive players weren’t quite at their usual level.
But there is one caveat: If that is to be your game plan, you’d better be close to perfect defensively.
On Monday night in Minnesota, the Oilers got the goaltending they required from Stuart Skinner, and an all-around stout defensive performance from everyone else, if not one that lacked Edmonton’s usual offensive pizzazz.
However, one big mistake was the difference in a 2-1 loss to Minnesota.
You didn’t know it at the time, but allowing that second Wild goal off a harmless two-on-two was the difference on the night, as free goals so often are.
“We made a mistake, five-on-five, in the second period that ended up costing us,” said head coach Jay Woodcroft, leaving no doubt.
“We stuck with it right until the final whistle, but unfortunately we couldn’t find that goal.”
The mistake is one that you have to live with when playing young defencemen, though admittedly, a mistake that Evan Bouchard has been working on fixing for some time now.
Watch the play:
Bouchard’s partner, Philip Broberg, steps up at the offensive blue-line and takes a Wild player out of the play. Connor McDavid dutifully takes Broberg’s defensive assignment and has good position on Frederick Gaudreau as the play heads towards Edmonton’s zone.
The puck goes to Matt Boldy, and he is one-on-one through the neutral zone with Bouchard.
You’ll recall a few games back, when a soft, indecisive play by Bouchard in a tied game against Washington got him benched for most of the third period?
“Gap control,” Bouchard said the next morning. “That’s the biggest thing that we’re working on for myself and as a team.
“I think the coach was expecting a little more from me,” added Bouchard, 23. “So you’ve got to kind of take that out of it. He expects more out of me and I expect more of myself.”
Hey, there are lots of plays in a game for a defenceman who averages 18:40 of ice time per game, fourth among Oilers defencemen. On Monday, Bouchard played most of them near perfectly.
But not this one, and in a 2-1 game, unfortunately, this is the one we’re talking about this morning.
This was a two-on-two. Not the kind of play that you expect will yield a goal.
“You don’t think so,” Woodcroft figured. “We just thought we could have been a little bit harder at the line than that. It’s a mistake, and it ended up being the mistake that cost us the goal.
“We certainly had enough time to get to back. We just couldn’t find the equalizer.”
Watch Bouchard’s gap as Boldy walks through the neutral zone and gains the Oiler blue-line uncontested. That is giving up the blue-line too easily, an issue that Bouchard has been working on.
As the play moves into Edmonton’s zone, Bouchard is too far from the skilled Wild forward, and when Boldy mishandles the puck momentarily the Oilers defenceman isn’t close enough to make Boldy pay.
Meanwhile, McDavid loses Gaudreau – clearly. But Boldy, who has now had the puck on his stick for over 100 feet of ice, has all day long to feed Gaudreau for the goal.
He makes the play because: A, he been granted entrance into the zone; B, Bouchard is still nowhere near him; and C, he is a creative offensive player who uses time and space to his advantage — and none of that has been taken away by Bouchard.
Would you like McDavid to have covered his man better? Sure.
Is it a defenceman’s job to contest his own blue-line far harder than Bouchard did? Sure.
In any defensive two-on-two situation that includes a defenceman and a forward, should the D-man take control and eliminate the puck carrier, rather than count on the back-checking forward to do the defensive work?
So, why do we bring this up? Or more accurately, why was defensive coach Dave Manson cueing this up on his laptop as the team jetted to Nashville after the 2-1 loss?
Because these are the moments that will make a top defenceman out of Bouchard one day, assuming he conquers them. But at the moment, however, he is repeating them too often.
Here’s the mistake that cost the go-ahead goal in the loss to Washington.
It’s different, but the same: the dangerous opposing player is too far away from Bouchard, and when the time comes to check him, Bouchard is in poor defensive position.
It’s defensive awareness. It’s gap control.
Call it what you want, it’s the same mistake over and over.
And if you’re one who thinks that pointing out a major gaffe equals “running a player out of town,” then you should know this:
This column is nothing, compared to the video session with Manson.