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The Secret Weapon

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

There are plenty of reasons why the Oilers are heading to San Jose with a 3-2 lead in the series. The goaltending has been solid for the most part. The powerplay has been looking good. And the club has received contributions from across their roster, as the defence, as well as the third and fourth lines provided offence on Thursday night.

One player that may not be getting any recognition for his contributions thus far in the post-season is 24-year old centerman Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He recently completed his sixth NHL season, collecting 43 points in 82 games, playing predominantly in a secondary role alongside Jordan Eberle and Milan Lucic. The trio completed the regular season with a 50.5% Corsi For at even-strength and had a 50.0% goal-share, which are solid numbers considering they often played against the other team’s top lines. The coach clearly has a lot of faith in the trio as a tough-minutes option, and they have remained intact for the first five games of the playoffs.

Nugent-Hopkins in particular has stood out in this series, as his play has been reliable across all areas of the ice. He’s shown flashes of offence, creating plenty of chances for his linemates. And he’s been playing sound defensive hockey, breaking up plays and leading his team in takeaways. Nugent-Hopkins has seen plenty of Logan Couture’s line this post-season, as well as Joe Pavelski’s, and has received regular minutes against the Brent Burns/Paul Martin pairing. What’s been interesting after five games is that the team’s Corsi differential has been mostly respectable with him on the ice, but has taken a dip, especially in games three and four in San Jose, when Nugent-Hopkins is on the bench.

Game Oilers Corsi For% Oilers Corsi Diff with RNH Oilers Corsi Diff Without RNH
1 36.47 -10 -13
2 69.12 6 20
3 47.96 4 -8
4 46.25 3 -9
5 63.76 10 31

In games 2 and 5 at home when the Oilers dominated play, the team did well with and without Nugent-Hopkins. He spent over 70% of his ice time at even-strength against Pavelski in both of those games and had a Corsi differential of +6. And in those two games, Nugent-Hopkins spent over 50% of his time against Burns, the defenceman he’s seen the most of in the series, and finished with a +9 Corsi differential.

In games 3 and 4 in San Jose, when the Sharks dominated, the Oilers posted better numbers with Nugent-Hopkins on the ice than without him. The problem for the Oilers in those games is that they took a lot of penalties, which drove up the proportion of ice time Nugent-Hopkins spent shorthanded. Spending over 25% of his ice time on the penalty kill not only throws off all of the line combinations and disrupts line-matching, but it also takes Nugent-Hopkins out of the game situation he’s been most effective at this post-season.

In game three in San Jose, Nugent-Hopkins spent only 39.5% of his ice time against Pavelski and went 3-2 in Corsi. In game four, he spent only 30% of his ice time against Pavelski, going 2-5. But he also went up against Tierney in the same game for about the same proportion of ice time and went 6-0.

For Nugent-Hopkins to be most effective on Saturday night in San Jose, the team will need to limit the number of penalties they take and have him out against Pavelski at even-strength as much as possible. Unfortunately for the Oilers, they do not have a reliable substitute for Nugent-Hopkins on the penalty kill, as Desharnais lacks experience, and cannot afford to repeat the mistakes they made in games three and four. The Sharks would absolutely love to see less of Nugent-Hopkins at even-strength, as he’s had success going up against Pavelski when given more time in a game. If they can avoid the stick infractions, it’ll be up to the coaching staff to figure out how to get RNH plenty of even-strength minutes and out against San Jose’s top lines.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Corsica Hockey