Oilers defencemen stepping up in first-round playoff series with Sharks

Oilers defence stepping up in Sharks series

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Edmonton Oilers have kept the San Jose Sharks off the scoreboard for six straight periods in taking a 2-1 Stanley Cup series lead.

While that puts the spotlight on Edmonton goalie Cam Talbot, he is quick to share the credit.

“Can’t say enough good things about the guys in front of me the last couple of games,” Talbot said Monday after a practice in preparation for Tuesday night’s Game 4. “I mean, we’ve given up less shots in the last two games combined than we did in the first game alone. We really tightened it up on the back end, not giving them much off the rush.”

San Jose fired 44 shots on net in its 3-2 overtime win in the series opener, but totalled only 39 in its two losses.

The emphasis on team defence that is paying off now has been part of the Oilers philosophy since Todd McLellan took over behind the bench before the 2015-16 season.

“It was pretty obvious it was something that needed to happen,” McLellan said. “When you threw the numbers at the group two years ago when we started, Edmonton had a reputation of playing real fast, get on offence and see what happens. That doesn’t win at this time of the year and I think we’re proving that.”

The year before McLellan arrived, the Oilers had given up an average of 3.37 goals per game, the highest of any NHL team. This season, that figure was down to 2.52 per game, eighth best in the NHL.

Three of the six Edmonton defencemen charged with containing the Sharks this series are finishing their first season with the Oilers. The biggest acquisition came last June when the team acquired Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils for popular forward Taylor Hall.

Kris Russell and Matt Benning also signed as free agents, but it was the trade for Larsson that got the most attention from critics who thought the Oilers gave up too much for too little.

“The outside noise occurred one, because Taylor Hall’s a tremendous hockey player,” McLellan said, “and two, not many people knew a lot about Larsson. He wasn’t a well-known quantity out west.

“We believed he could come in and help us, and I believe he’s certainly met our expectations. Not only as he made our team better, but he’s made people around him better.”

Oscar Klefbom, Larsson’s defensive partner, echoed his coach’s sentiment.

“He’s been so good for us all year, playing a physical game,” Klefbom said of Larsson. “These kind of games, he loves to be on the ice. For me as a player, (I) can just focus on my game and you know he’s going to take care of his business.”

At times, Larsson and Klefbom have drawn the challenge of covering San Jose captain Joe Pavelski, the Sharks’ top-scoring forward in the regular season with 29 goals and 68 points. Pavelski set up Melker Karlsson for the overtime goal in Game 1, but has been limited to only three shots on net the past two games.

“He puts himself in a spot where it’s really hard to defend because you really need to pay attention to where his stick is at,” Klefbom said of Pavelski, known for his net-front tips. “You can move his body around a little bit, but as soon as the shot comes he’s there.”

The return of centre Joe Thornton to the Sharks lineup in Game 3 should not change Edmonton’s basic defensive approach, Klefbom added.

“On the ice you can see how he buys time for everyone around him,” Klefbom said. “It’s very impressive to see, but if we just focus on our game and take care, we should be fine.”

David Pollak, The Canadian Press

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