From Center Ice: Previewing Blackhawks vs. Oilers
Posted by Courtney Bauman
Posted on July 31, 2020
The year is 2020. The Blackhawks somehow have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
If you told me that fact 5 years ago, I’d tell you, “Of course they do. They’re the best team of the decade!” But, oh how times have changed. The Blackhawks went from the top of the world to, “Do they remember how to keep the puck out of their net?”
Granted, when you have that much success in a hard salary cap world, it's hard to keep the gang together and be competitive every single year. The fact that the Hawks were able to win 3 Stanley Cups in 6 years was beyond impressive – and exciting, as a fan. Now, due to aging and losing players to the cap, the Blackhawks are trying to find their new identity.
When the season came to a halt due to COVID-19, the Blackhawks had solidified their spot outside of the playoffs. Then, the NHL’s Return to Play plan expanded the playoff picture to include 24 teams, and suddenly the Blackhawks are right back in it.
First, they have to get through the high-octane Edmonton Oilers. Oh, and the Oilers have the best player in the world. No big deal, right?
Let’s take a look.
Recent Playoff Experience
This section is a lot happier for the Blackhawks than it is for the Oilers.
As mentioned before, the Blackhawks won 3 Stanley Cups in 6 years. There were some sore spots in between, and things went off the rails after the 2015 win.
2010: The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 6 games over the Philadelphia Flyers.
2011: After battling back from a 3-0 hole, the Blackhawks lose in Game 7 to Vancouver. Chris Campoli, anyone?
2012: The first round series that has somehow defined Corey Crawford’s entire career. The Blackhawks lost in 6 games to the (then) Phoenix Coyotes. They were up against a goaltender named Mike Smith . . . If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s currently on the Edmonton roster.
2013: The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 6 games over the Boston Bruins. 17 Seconds are all it takes to change your fate.
2014: My personal biggest hockey heartbreak. Game 7. Conference finals. Los Angeles. Alec Martinez rips a shot at the net in over time. The pucks deflects off of Nick Leddy and over the right shoulder of Corey Crawford. Could we have had a 3-Peat? We’ll never know.
2015: The Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup in 6 games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and half of Ben Bishop’s groin.
2016: A first-round Game 6 exit against St. Louis (looking at you, Erik Gustafsson).
2017: Nashville. Hawks got Swept. Only scored 3 goals. I hate it.
2018 & 2019: The Blackhawks miss the playoffs.
Now for Edmonton –
2017: Connor McDavid’s second year in the league. The Edmonton Oilers make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. They make it to the second round but lose to Anaheim in Game 7.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), past playoff experience doesn’t mean much going into a new year with new teams. But, I will rely on this a bit further down, so laying it out was important.
Let’s take a look at the top scorers for both teams in the 2019-20 regular season
Patrick Kane: 70GP 33G 51A 84P
Jonathan Toews: 70GP 18G 42A 60P
Dominik Kubalik: 68GP 30G 16A 46P
Alex DeBrincat: 70GP 18G 27A 45P
Dylan Strome: 58GP 12G 26A 38P
Leon Draisaitl: 71GP 43G 67A 110P
Connor McDavid: 64GP 34G 63A 97P
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: 65GP 22G 39A 61P
Zack Kassian: 59GP 15G 19A 34P
Oscar Klefbom: 5G 29A 34P
Yeah, so, take a look at those top two guys for Edmonton. This is going to be quite the test for Chicago. Fortunately, their roster drops off a bit. But, depth players are typically the most important factor in playoff success. It’ll come down to which team has the strongest depth, and that's something we just can’t predict.
Players to Watch
Now that we’ve taken a look at the top scorers for both teams, I have some players from each team to watch for in this series.
Kirby Dach: The rookie! Going into this series, I am most interested to see what we get from Kirby Dach. From all accounts, he was one of the most impressive skaters coming into training camp, and he looked great in the exhibition game against St. Louis. Can he be the depth player that breaks out in this series? That’s yet to be seen. Look for him to be an important role player on the penalty kill as well.
Dominik Kubalik: Also a rookie – a calder trophy finalist, even. He put up 30 goals in the regular season and potted 2 more on the power play against St. Louis. Will his spark light up the team? Or will he fizzle out in crunch time?
Alex DeBrincat: As a sniper, potting only 18 goals in the regular season made for a rough year. He was frustrated, and the monkey was been clinging to his back so hard that it seems like it’ll take a miracle to rip it off. If the Blackhawks want to have playoff success now, and in the future, DeBrincat needs to be a big contributor, especially on the power play.
Drake Caggiula: Caggiula is a former Oiler and usually plays well against his old team. Remember the depth players I mentioned? This could be the perfect time for him to step up and make a huge difference.
Duncan Keith: I have been more than hard on Duncan Keith for the past year or two. Age was clearly catching up to him and he was slowing down. He looks to have put in a ton of work during the pause. If his feet can keep up with his brain and senses, that would be HUGE for the Blackhawks.
Calvin de Haan: Coming off of shoulder surgery, what can we expect from de Haan? In the best of times, he is a steady defender that can slow down the game and make life hard on the opposing offensive players. He took two penalties against St. Louis, but that’s not the norm for him. If he can keep his feet moving and get up to game-speed mentally and physically, it’ll be interesting to see how he contributes.
Kailer Yamamoto: This is Yamamoto’s third season with the Oilers. He improves every year and was a stand-out in their exhibition game against Calgary. If this kid gets going, it’s one more offensive threat for the Blackhawks to worry about.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins: Don’t forget about this guy. He’s struggled through some very, very bad Oilers teams. Just because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have taken over as the top 2 centers, if you forget about Nuge, he will wreak havoc on you. He has been playing wing on the top 2 lines. Still, don’t discount him. Especially if he gets moved down to balance out the lines.
Darnell Nurse: He’s big. He’s fast. He can score. Nurse is a huge threat from the blue line. If he’s at the top of his game, he could take over a game – or even a series. If you have him feeding the puck to McDavid or Draisaitl, you better be tracking that puck well - and doing your damndest to keep it from getting to your goalie.
Zack Kassian: Kassian’s role is to make life hard on the opposing team. He’s a pest. He’s a hard-hitter. He'll drop the gloves. Basically, he’s no fun to play against. Plus, he can put up some points playing next to the top two. If he does his job and gets under the Blackhawks’ skin, things could go south for the Hawks very quickly.
It’s not even worth telling you to watch for McDavid and Draisaitl – the Two-headed monster of terror.
In typical gamesmanship fashion, Jeremy Colliton and Dave Tippett both refused to name their starting goaltender for Game 1 on Saturday.
Corey Crawford missed most of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19. He showed up for the last few days and travel to Edmonton with the team. Crawford played the first half of the game against St. Louis and combined with Malcolm Subban to shut them out. It was only an exhibition game, but it was against the defending Stanley Cup Champs and one of the Hawks' biggest rivals. He played well, despite not being tested often.
I cannot imagine a scenario in which a healthy Corey Crawford does not get Game 1 between the pipes for Chicago. After trading away Robin Lehner at the deadline, the crease was Crawford’s to lose. He played very well down the stretch and didn’t allow any goals on Wednesday. He may have missed most of training camp, but I don’t sit a 2-time Stanley Cup winning goaltender who has consistently shown up when his team needed him. I like Malcolm Subban. But, if I’m making the decision – Crawford gets the net.
Edmonton’s goaltending situation is a bit different. They have Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen on the roster. They also split the decision in their exhibition game on Tuesday. Koskinen got the start, but that doesn’t really mean anything.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Koskinen had better numbers in the regular season (18-13-3 2.75 GAA .917sv%) compared to Smith (19-12-6 2.95 GAA .902sv%).
Here’s the kicker – Koskinen has no NHL playoff experience. He had a short stint (by short, I mean 4GP) with the Islanders in 2010-11. This is his second year with Edmonton. In the years between, he was minding the net in SM-liiga and the KHL.
Mike Smith has a much larger NHL resume and has 24 playoff games to his name. He’s gone 11-12 in those games but sports the best playoff sv% in the league at .938. Again, 24 games – but, that is good.
I guess we’ll see what Dave Tippett decides, but that’s a decision I wouldn’t want to make.
My guess? We see Corey Crawford vs Mike Smith.
Edmonton Oilers Speed vs Blackhawks Defense
The most difficult aspect for the Blackhawks facing the Edmonton Oilers may be the speed differential. If we put aside the scoring prowess of the Oilers' two-headed monster, there are speedy legs up and down their lineup. They’re young, they can skate, and they can make you look silly.
This young speedy team is going against a defense core of Duncan Keith, Olli Maata, Calvin de Haan, Adam Boqvist, Slater Koekkoek, and Connor Murphy. Keith still has some wheels on him, and Boqvist can skate with the best of them. The rest of those guys aren’t necessarily known as world-beaters on the ice. They’re going to have to rely on solid positioning, no bad pinches, and their forwards getting back to help out.
The Blackhawks aren’t known for playing the trap game in the neutral zone, and that won’t start on Saturday. So, they’re going to have to play smart, disciplined, and skate their asses off to keep up. I believe they can do it, but I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if a lot of odd-man rushes go the other way. In that case, it’s up to our goaltenders to be on the top of their game.
This is a best of 5 series. If you stop them in Game 1, you can’t get cocky and think you have them the rest of the way. You have to enter each game knowing that at any time, if you slip up, McDavid will be slipping right past you and threatening your goaltender. And, that’s just rude.
This series is going to be quite the test for a Chicago Blackhawks team that had no business being in the playoffs. That said, it’s hard to judge a team based on a regular season that ended over 4 months ago. They’ve had all that time to prepare. Both teams are in the same boat, but this is where I come back to the playoff experience. The Blackhawks have a lot of it. They may have a lot of young guys, but at the end of the day, they still have Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brandon Saad, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford on the roster. If anyone knows how to battle through playoff adversity, it’s these guys.
If they get in, never count them out.