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Oilers Playoff Preview: Chicago Play-In Series

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Edmonton and Chicago seem to be destined to meet in a 5-game play-in series as apart of the NHL’s new 24-team format

We are inching closer to an eventual 2020 NHL Playoff and it seems like the most likely format will include the league’s top 24 teams. The bracket is based off of points percentage and gives byes to the top four teams in each conference while the remaining teams will engage in five-game play-in series to determine the top 16.

As luck would have it the Oilers currently rank fifth in the Western Conference with a 0.585pt% (a whole 0.09% behind Dallas). As the top ranked team not getting a bye, that means they will line up against the worst ranked team to make the cut: The Chicago Blackhawks. Certainly not as sexy as the Battle of Alberta we were sure of before the season paused, but an interesting opponent nonetheless.

Let’s take a look at how the teams stack up and how a potential 5-game series could play out.

Season Series:

Despite their differences in the standings, the Blackhawks won the season series against the Oilers taking home two of the three games played. Leon Draisaitl lead both teams in points in those games, collecting a grand total of 8 points (6 assists and 2 goals), while Patrick Kane gathered the most points for the ‘Hawks with 2 goals and 2 assists.

In net, the Oilers went with Mike Smith for every game. The veteran net-minder turned aside 87 of the 96 shots he faced, giving him a .906 save percentage. On the Blackhawks side, Corey Crawford tended the goal in Chicago’s two wins, saving 48 of 52 shots faced for a .923sv%, while Robin Lehner dropped a 5-3 decision, saving 26 of the 30 shots sent his way, on February 11th.

Crawford was absolutely fantastic in Chicago’s first win on October 14th but rather lacklustre during their second win. Mike Smith, on the other hand, wasn’t lights out but he was rather consistent and came up big in Edmonton’s sole win, turning aside 38 of 41 shots.

Special teams favoured Edmonton strongly. The Oilers scored on three of their seven opportunities for 42% and killed off all eight penalties that they took. This isn’t a surprise as Edmonton was near the top of the league for both power-play and penalty kill all season long.

Comparing Offense:

There is an easy cop-out that I can refer to when comparing Edmonton and Chicago’s offensive weapons. The Oilers have McDavid and Draisaitl and the ‘Hawks do not. But cop-out answers suck so I am not going to go there.

The fact of the matter is, there is much more to the forward groups of both these teams than it might seem. While the Oilers do possess two of the league’s brightest young stars, the Blackhawks have a great mix of both young and old talent balanced throughout their lineup.

Outside of Toews and Kane, who are the lifeblood of Chicago’s offence, the team also sports Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik and Kirby Dach. All those young guys are very talented forwards hungry to carve out their own success. They also add a surprising amount of depth for a team ranked so lowly. Depth that cannot be taken lightly by the Oilers.

To counter them, Edmonton will undoubtedly rely on McDavid and Draisaitl to lead the charge. Those two will be highly motivated heading into the series and that could be a real game-changer. Outside of those two you have to hope that the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Kailer Yamamoto keep clicking on the second line, to which I can’t find a reason why they’d suddenly drop off.

The real question is which players coach Tippet decides to run with McDavid. Zack Kassian is the de-facto guy on the right, I’ll point you to 2017 as an example of what he can bring, but the left wing spot is still anybody’s game. Tyler Ennis had some success in his short time in that spot before the pause, but I still think Andreas Athanasiou deserves another crack. Having two of the fastest players in the league on one line would absolutely devastate the aging defensive core in Chicago.

I still give the Oilers the edge when it comes to their forward group. McDavid & Draisaitl have the ability to completely overwhelm Chicago on their own, adding guys like Nugent-Hopkins & Yamamoto to the mix is gravy. Yet, I don’t think the spread is as far apart as some would have you think.

Defensive Battle:

When it comes to playoff hockey there might not be a more important position than defence. The old saying “defence wins championships” rings true most of the time as it is fairly hard to win games with lacklustre defence.

Chicago is a testament to this mentality. They won their Stanley Cups with a bolstered blue-line that was lead by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in their prime. However, as we prepare to enter the 2020 playoffs it might be their biggest weakness. Keith and Seabrook are not the players they used to be as father time is rapidly affecting their game. Some questionable decisions, like trading away Erik Gustafsson and adding Olli Maata, has only made the team slower and susceptible to Edmonton’s high powered offence.

That isn’t to say the Blackhawks are totally hopeless on defence. Keith is still a world-class defender and the Hawks do boast a few capable defenders like Adam Boqvist and Connor Murphy. It is still far from ideal for the Windy City.

The Oilers, on the other hand, are finally in a good spot when it comes to their defensive group. Oscar Klefbom is the team’s undisputed #1 guy but he has a good mix of youth and veteran support. Adam Larsson has endured a few tough seasons but is still a capable top-4 guy while the emergence of Ethan Bear and Caleb Jones adds a smart and youthful presence. Darnell Nurse, while polarizing to the fanbase, has progressed well in his young career and is a decent defender. Then the team has a myriad of options on to fill the rest of the group out, ranging from cagey veteran Kris Russell to younger players like Matt Benning and William Lagesson. It isn’t the perfect group but it is certainly one that encourages more confidence than Chicago’s.

The edge goes to the Oilers and it really isn’t much of a contest here.

Between The Pipes:

Finally, we move into the battle of the goaltenders. It is a battle that is fairly close between the two teams but I think one team might hold the edge.

The Blackhawks entered the season with two capable goaltender in Crawford and Lehner, but opted to trade Lehner to the Vegas Golden Knights at the trade deadline. In exchange the team brought in Malcolm Subban to act as Crawford’s backup. A move they probably wouldn’t of done had they known the situation they lay in now.

Crawford, despite regressing the past few seasons, is still a very good starting goaltender and he still possess the ability to steal games the Hawks have no business winning. You can bet that Chicago will ride him all series long and that he will be motivated to show the NHL that he still has a few good years ahead of him.

On Edmonton’s side it is likely that they will trust Mike Smith in goal for the first few games at least. Smith has plenty of experience in playoff hockey and is one year removed from a fantastic round one series performance with the Flames. Calgary lost the series but it wasn’t due to insufficent goaltending. If Smith goes awry the backup option isn’t too bad in Mikko Koskinen.

Koskinen has had a great year with Edmonton, posting a solid 18-13-3 record to go along with a .917sv%. He has arguably been the better of the two goaltenders for the Oilers and, while he doesn’t have any NHL playoff experience, he does have plenty of experience in the KHL playoffs.

The edge once again goes to the Oilers as they have two solid options in net while the Hawks are putting all their hope into Crawford.

Conclusion:

The Edmonton Oilers are the heavy favourite in this matchup and for good reason. They boast a star-studded forward group, a balanced defensive group and two NHL-calibre goaltenders. If the Hawks have any hope in this series it has to come from their young group of forwards.

However, the playoffs are the playoffs and we shouldn’t be carving anything into stone just yet. I am just happy we are talking about this at all!

Stay safe and Go Oilers Go!