Before the Oilers opened things up in Game 2, before they turned on the taps and the water gushed in the second period, there were two key defensive plays that were potentially game changers.
Those efforts, both shorthanded in Edmonton, were made by the same person – a low-key signing so late in the first day of free agency that it almost went unnoticed.
Derek Ryan will rarely make headlines in a team built around global superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. That was certainly the case when the buzzer sounded to complete a 6-0 victory for the Oilers. It’s easy to overlook a few defensive saves in such a lopsided game.
He’s not an underrated guy among his teammates, though.
“He’s a consummate pro. He’s been working in practice,” goaltender Mike Smith said. “He’s a veteran player who has played in some teams that have done good things and obviously means a lot to us.
“We had penalty issues, and he was there to make great plays.”
Derek Ryan, in a nutshell.
Both of those under-the-radar plays were the result of quick thinking and an even faster stick.
The first deviation came a few minutes before the middle of the opening period. Anze Kopitar was looking for Adrian Kempe for a potential one-timer. Ryan lowered his stick to get the puck out of harm’s way.
Ryan’s second defensive gem had an even more dangerous chance.
Phillip Danault tried to feed Kopitar on what looked like a two-on-one deep in the Oilers’ zone. That’s when Ryan stepped in to deny a Grade A scoring chance and probable goal, which could have turned Edmonton’s 1-0 lead into a draw.
“I thought we were going to release it. They did a good job staying on it. Danault got it and took it to the net,” Ryan said. “He had to take it on his backhand, so he gave me a split second to come back. I knew that if he went to his backhand he was going to try to smack him through a back door. He’s my guy. I have to go back and get that blanket. Got it, took it out, then got hit pretty hard.
All on a night of work for Ryan, who played 3:10 of his shorthanded 13:38. He continues to convince his trainer, Jay Woodcroft.
“He blocked shots and made a lot of really good shorthanded reads when there were breakdowns,” Woodcroft said. “He is an unsung hero of our team. The playoffs are when you see them. Every little piece is magnified, and he’s done a lot of really good ones.
Ryan did a bit of everything, from shorthanded to game-winning ties for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in the right side faceoff circle. At 35, he is the third oldest member of the team behind Smith and Duncan Keith. He is both articulate and honest.
He’s been open about how his role has changed for the better under Woodcroft compared to former coach Dave Tippett. He became a bigger part of the team.
Of course, part of that comes with better play on his part. Ryan’s season has been a roller coaster, almost emulating the successes and failures of the Oilers.
Ryan was effective for the first few games, centering a third line with Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian. Things turned quickly. He registered three goals and three assists in the first 40 games. The Oilers were outscored 23-11 five-for-five in nearly 352 minutes with him on the ice.
A move to the right wing, eventually settling with Foegele and Nugent-Hopkins, served Ryan well. The change of coach was also. He played 10:57 per game for Tippett. This increased slightly at 11:25 a.m. below Woodcroft.
The Oilers finished the season 37-33 with Ryan on the ice at five-for-five, meaning they were 22-14 in the dark with Woodcroft behind the bench.
Ryan said he enjoyed his relationship with Woodcroft, especially how he delivered a pair of back-to-back healthy scratches on March 24 and 26 when the Oilers were healthy past the trade deadline.
“I just wanted to give people fair opportunities and unfortunately that meant some really good players couldn’t play in this game,” Woodcroft said. “I believe in not letting someone walk into the rink and see their number outside of a queue. It’s just a courtesy and respect that our coaching staff extended to a first team individual in Derek Ryan.
Since returning to the roster, Ryan has been instrumental in the resurgence of the shorthanded Oilers. He has killed 92.5% of opponents’ chances in the last 18 games. That bump helped push the Oilers up 79.4 percent on the season after a terrible stretch before the layoffs of Tippett and associate coach Jim Playfair in February. And through two games in the series, the Oilers have killed all eight of the Kings’ power plays.
“There are times in those times of the season where things don’t go your way,” Ryan said. “We got back to our structure a bit, started blocking shots, winning faceoffs early on kills – which is huge to get the puck down the ice. We are all on the same page now. Before, it was a bit disjointed.
“He’s responsible for his own end and does a lot of good things for the whole 200 feet of ice,” Smith said of Ryan. “He is an important piece of the puzzle and he will continue to work and get the job done.”
Things seem to be going as well as possible for Ryan now.
He has scored 10 goals and 22 points in 75 games this season. He’s useless in the playoffs so far.
Offense isn’t why he’s so important to the Oilers.
The former University of Alberta Golden Bear always thought the Oilers would be a good choice when he entered the open market last July. It seems more and more day by day that he was right.
He just hopes there will be more impactful moments to come.
“Free will is always stressful, but I came here to win,” he said. “Every guy in this locker room wants to do the same – and it’s won.
“We’re gearing up for Game 3. It’s a crucial game in SoCal.”
(Photo: Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)