The Sharks win if …
San Jose has the experience of getting to the final and the thirst that comes with not completing the task at hand against Pittsburgh. The Sharks are a deep, experienced team with a heavy lineup. While the Oilers won the season series 3-1-1, playoff hockey is different and Edmonton’s key players have little to no NHL post-season experience, with the exception of Milan Lucic.
While expectations will be high for McDavid (he’s probably winning the Hart Trophy), the formula for shutting him down in a series was perfected back in junior when Oshawa took out his favored Erie Otters in the OHL final. Back then, it was overaged defenseman Dakota Mermis and shutdown center Cole Cassels taking away his time and space. In this series, it will be the best shutdown defenseman in the world, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, plus whichever of San Jose’s big, strong two-way centers coach Pete DeBoer decides to give the job to. While future glory is almost pre-ordained for a player as talented as McDavid, he’s likely going to get his nose bloodied this year: either figuratively, literally, or both.
San Jose is also the better possession team in this series and that usually bodes well for a team in the playoffs – just look at the modern dynasty from Chicago.
In Martin Jones, the Sharks have a goaltender who has proven he can handle post-season pressure and there’s no reason to believe otherwise. And finally, the Sharks have something bigger to play for. Franchise mainstays Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both free agents in the summer and at this point, it’s hard to say if they’ll be back in teal next year. Winning the team’s first-ever championship would be the fairytale send-off and it all begins in the first round.
The Oilers win if …
It’s tough to bet against Connor McDavid, isn’t it? The kid pretty much does everything at a high level and his competitive spirit drives his skills. With Leon Draisaitl riding shotgun, McDavid has helped Edmonton back to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and he’s not alone. The second line, centered by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, got hot in the last 10 games of the regular season and if there’s any sort of carryover, all of a sudden the Sharks get into a serious matchup problem.
There’s also the fact that San Jose is seriously banged up right now, with key players such as Joe Thornton and Logan Couture on the mend. Even if they don’t miss Game 1, will they truly be 100 percent? That’s a playoff mystery, but certainly works to the Oilers’ advantage. Brent Burns, once considered a favorite for the Norris Trophy, saw his production dive in the last quarter of the season, as the bearded and burly wunderkind scored just two goals in his final 23 games. And despite having so many brand-name stars in the lineup, the Sharks’ power play was weak, ranking just 25th overall in the NHL. Considering that Edmonton clocked in at fifth overall and you’ve got a huge special teams advantage (the teams had near-identical penalty-kill numbers).
But really, it all comes back to McDavid. Even if the Sharks can slow him down, they can’t keep him off the scoreboard entirely and the Oilers have nuclear options Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic should things get heated. San Jose’s players have a lot of mileage on them and the young Oilers are just getting started.
Oilers: Cam Talbot has two post-season games to his credit, both coming with the New York Rangers. The big netminder was fantastic for the Oilers this season and the most important player on the franchise not named Connor McDavid. His seven shutouts put him right up there with the best in the NHL, proving that he wasn’t just making the saves he needed to, but also stealing the occasional game himself. But how will he handle the pressure and bright lights of the playoffs? San Jose will pressure the Oilers and Talbot will be the last line of defense.
Sharks: Joel Ward’s playoff excellence is well-known. The smart and talented veteran just knows how to get goals during a time of year when they are scarce and that has made him a valuable member of several squads during post-season runs. With Thornton and Couture mending, San Jose will need gritty goals early on and Ward could be the guy to rain on Edmonton’s parade plans.
How do you stop arguably the best player in the world? You don’t, you only hope to contain him. Shutting down Connor McDavid is they key to San Jose’s victory and while it’s no easy task, they come well-equipped with one of the best tools for the job: Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Widely regarded as one of the game’s best shutdown defensemen, he’ll be on McDavid duty all series. That’s nothing new for him as he faces the other team’s best on a nightly basis, but he hasn’t been so hot against McDavid, allowing his line to generate shots and score at a much faster rate than he usually does. Vlasic’s also experiencing one of his weakest seasons by shot metrics so it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the big assignment here. Last year’s version could get the job done, but it’s much more up in the air this season with how he’s played and how much better McDavid has become. There’s likely no D-man in the league that can shut him down, not even one of the league’s best here in San Jose. (Dom Luszczyszyn)
OILERS in six games.