EDMONTON OILERS – By Brian Costello
A team boasting exceptional talents in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl is unquestionably a threat to go all the way, regardless of playoff seed or home-ice advantage. The dynamic duo are the two biggest offensive needle-movers in the game, and the fact they’re sometimes on the ice at the same time changes everything when it comes to defensive strategies to shut them down. At least on special teams.
The Oilers, under new GM Ken Holland, have added more depth, diversifying the attack and thinning the focus on McDavid and Draisaitl. Rookie Kailer Yamamoto had 26 points in 27 games, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the best point-per-game output of his nine-season NHL career, and Zack Kassian has arrived as a goal-scoring power forward. James Neal was on pace for his 11th career 20-goal season until COVID-19 shut things down.
Under defensive specialist coach Dave Tippett, the Oilers are taking care of business in their own end, too. Edmonton still allowed a couple more shots per game than it generated, but the platoon netminding of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith seemed to work.
The Oilers ranked near the bottom of the league in 5-on-5 Corsi percentage, but no team is more dangerous on special teams. Edmonton has far and away the best power play in the league and is a top-two team on the penalty kill as well.
Edmonton is most vulnerable when both Koskinen and Smith run cold. Sure, it’s good there’s a proven 1A and 1B, but the cost is usually a loss before switching to the other guy. In a short series, that really hurts.
And even though the blueline corps has solidified under Tippett, it still lacks a top-four defenseman and is prone to miscues and turnovers. Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom and Ethan Bear all rank among the NHL’s top 50 blueline offenders when it comes to giveaways.
X-factor: The Oilers’ 29.5 percent power-play efficiency was the best the league has seen in more than 40 years – since the late 1970s when Montreal’s dynasty was ending and the Islanders’ was beginning. But does that mean anything in the playoffs when defenses tighten? Since the 2004-05 lockout, the team with the NHL’s best PP percentage has made it past the first round just seven times in 14 attempts – and past the second round just twice (Detroit in ’08-09 and Vancouver in ’10-11). Edmonton’s hope that trade-deadline acquisition Mike Green would diversify the power play evaporated when he opted out of the playoffs.
CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS – By Ken Campbell
When the NHL paused its season because of the coronavirus March 12, the Chicago Blackhawks were sitting six points out of a playoff spot with four teams to overcome and just 12 games remaining. That’s dead-in-the-water territory right there.
So, the Blackhawks enter the COVID-19 Invitational as the second-worst team in the competition and one that is at or near the bottom of the 24-team pile in several significant statistical categories. Vegas would’ve been a fitting hub-city choice for the Blackhawks to compete in, because this is clearly a team playing with house money.
Any resemblance between these Blackhawks and the team that won multiple Stanley Cups leading up to 2015 is purely coincidental. The Blackhawks essentially admitted as much when they were significant sellers at the trade deadline, dealing defenseman Erik Gustafsson to the Calgary Flames and goalie Robin Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights for picks and prospects. If the Blackhawks had any inkling they’d be in the playoffs, they likely would not have dealt Lehner. It’s a move that’s come back to haunt them.
Why is that? Well, Corey Crawford was deemed “unfit” on Day 1 of camp, leaving Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia, with a combined zero minutes of playoff experience, to tend the crease. And the Blackhawks have this propensity for giving up a lot of shots. The 35.1 per game they were surrendering was worst in the NHL, and they’re currently without top-six blueliners Calvin de Haan (family emergency) and Connor Murphy (“unfit to participate”). Only one team of the 24 gave up more goals per game, and none of them had a worse power play than the Blackhawks.
The Hawks are OK offensively, but they’re nothing special. Patrick Kane was his usual brilliant self and Jonathan Toews was on pace for 70 points. Rookie Dominik Kubalik was a major find and did more with less than any other player in the NHL. He scored 30 goals despite getting under 15 minutes of ice time per game.
X-factor: You know how the mantra for real estate is ‘Location, location, location’? Well, this team will enter the playoffs chanting ‘Experience, experience, experience’. There is no post-season situation that the core of the Blackhawks has not seen multiple times before. Overtime in Game 7? Been there. Overcome series deficits? Pfft. No problem.Whether that translates into this group being able to use that to overcome a lot of glaring deficiencies remains to be seen, but there are a lot of players other than Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith that teams would rather face in a series, especially a short one.
Oct. 14, 2019: Blackhawks 3, Oilers 1
Feb. 11, 2020: Oilers 5, Blackhawks 3
March 5, 2020: Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3
Saturday, Aug. 1, 3:00 p.m.: Blackhawks at Oilers
Monday, Aug. 3, 10:30 pm.: Blackhawks at Oilers
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 10:30 pm.: Oilers at Blackhawks
Friday, Aug. 7, TBD: Oilers at Blackhawks *
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD: Blackhawks at Oilers *
(All games listed in eastern time)
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Oilers in four games
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