Edmonton Oilers fans have been counting down the days to tomorrow night for months. After an incredible start to their 2021-22 campaign and a dreadful middle, the masses were losing their marbles until Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson rode in to save the day. Putting together a 26-9-3 run to close out a season will do that but none of it matters once their series with the Los Angeles Kings gets underway.
Yes, the Oilers have been among the very best teams in the league since February 11, 2022. The numbers speak for themselves. No team has won more games during this stretch. They were a top five team offensively and defensively, inside the Top Ten on both special teams and have the third best team save percentage during said time period. All signs pointing in the right direction.
However, expecting this team to just walkover the Kings might be a tad premature. You can bet Todd McLellan’s side will bring a physical, defensively responsible game on a nightly basis and staying out of the box will be a must. Los Angeles doesn’t have near the roster capability that Edmonton does but they do have a couple of cards to paly that should give them a fighting chance in this series.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl give the Oilers the best one-two punch in the NHL but in Anže Kopitar and Phillip Danault, the Kings might just have the best one-two defensive tandem down the middle to counter with. Mix in what has been a resurgence of sorts from Jonathan Quick and the Kings might just have the necessary pieces to make a series out this.
After signing Danault to a 6-year/$33 million pact in the off-season, the former Montreal Canadiens standout delivered what was by far and away the finest season of his career. The 27-goals pop of the page and to have done it while going up against other teams best players, is all the more impressive. Again, this team is no offensive juggernaut and he still put up 27/24/51 on the season.
We saw during last year’s playoffs what he could do in the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs and yes, having elite Carey Price show up helped a great deal. Danault made life difficult for Auston Matthews and company during the back half of that series and got better and better as the playoffs moved along. Fair to say McDavid will see a steady diet of no. 24 from the drop of the puck
At 34-years of age, Kopitar isn’t the player he was but has enough left in the tank to be an impact piece in a playoff series. He still logs over 20-minutes a night (in all situations), is among the best face-off men in the league and managed to post a very respectable 19/48/67 over 81 games. His skill-set, size and overall two-way game suggests Draisaitl will need to be at his best in a head-to-head matchup.
No question, the Oilers still have the advantage down the middle but McLellan can do something not many other coaches can with this matchup. That in itself is a major plus for the Kings and it’s something both Draisaitl and McDavid will be looking to make a non-factor in the series opener. If that happens, Edmonton will be in a favourable spot but if it doesn’t, the pressure will mount.
When it comes to goaltending, in my mind, it’s a flip of a coin. Mike Smith has been on a major heater the past month but is due for a dip from where he’s been of late, as arguably the hottest goalie in the league. Like it or not, the correction is coming and chances are we see it during this series. The question is how drastic a correction will we see and how good will the guy at the other end of rink be.
After a few rough seasons, Quick posted a .910 SV%, his best since 2017-18, and like his counterpart, is coming into the playoffs on a heater of his own, with five consecutive victories and a .938 SV%. Just like Smith, that is likely to correct but his has been a two-week thing and not going on for a month. We’ll see how it plays out but if the 36-year old outplays the 40-year old, the series could turn on a dime.
Edmonton unquestionably has the better and deeper team but it doesn’t take much for a short series to turn. Woodcroft has done a great job of implementing his system play with this group and as previously mentioned, the results speak for themselves. However, that is going to have to continue over the next ten or so days. The bottom six forwards will need to chip in on the offence. It’s a non-negotiable.
The blueline has to be ready for the physical pounding that is coming and with Darnell Nurse unlikely to be at 100% it won’t be easy. Be it with an 11 and 7 set up or the more traditional 12 and 6, the Oilers backend has a lot to prove and though they’ve been much better of late, it remains this team’s biggest question mark, along with the uncertainty of what they’ll get from Smith and/or Mikko Koskinen.
Even if the Kings come out and do their thing, this series is Edmonton’s to win or lose. The margin for error isn’t very big and that’s something that can’t be ignored. I have no doubt Jay Woodcroft is aware of it but not sold on that being the case with this fan base. One thing we do know, this is best prepared an Oilers team has been for the playoffs since 2006 and that could prove to be the difference.