Is there anyone better at igniting rivalries in the NHL right now than Matthew Tkachuk?
Thanks to his antics and borderline hits, Zack Kassian’s crazy response and the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames both being within reach of the playoffs, the Battle of Alberta seems to be close to a rolling boil. Even better than the regular-season rivalry looking more intense is that, as things currently sit in the Pacific Division, the Oilers and Flames would face each other in the first round of the playoffs if they started today.
The Pacific’s standings are highly volatile at the moment, so there’s absolutely zero guarantee that the two teams will even make the playoffs, let alone face off against each other in the first round, but if they do it will be the first time since 1991.
The hype for that series would be unbelievably high, but how would it shake out? Based on the whole season’s statistics so far, looking at the data I dug up in mid-January to break down the Pacific Division race, the Flames would have a decided advantage in a multitude of areas at 5-vs-5, but how representative is the entire season?
The Oilers went on a rough run for a stretch, but seemed to turn things around before the All-Star break, while the Flames were a total mess to start the season, but have been much better since they were forced to make a coaching change.
Looking at how each team is playing recently might give us a better idea of who would hold the advantage if a series started today, so let’s start things clean at the start of 2020 and see how it all shakes out.
At 5-vs-5, the Oilers’ run of strong play doesn’t actually look very good. Granted, they are much better than the season-long statistics would suggest, but overall they don’t look like a strong team.
Defensively, the Oilers aren’t giving much up at even strength at all, but they’re not generating much either. The biggest improvement Edmonton has made defensively has been in cutting down chances against the forecheck. The team has given up a league-low six since the calendar shifted to 2020, whereas the league average is 22. That’s fewer than one allowed per game, which is pretty impressive.
The Oilers are also giving up the fourth-fewest cycle-chances against per game, and the second-fewest chances against overall, though that defensive improvement hasn’t been coupled with an increase in offence. But, like I wrote when the Oilers played this way earlier in the season, the tightly contested, low-event style favours the team with two of the best game-breakers in the sport.
The Oilers are by no means a powerhouse, but if they can play this tight a defensive game at even strength, they should be able to continue squeaking out wins down the stretch.
The Flames, meanwhile, aren’t as red hot as they were right after the coaching change, but they’ve at least played opponents evenly or better in most areas. The one place they’re highly exploitable is off the rush, where they aren’t generating many chances at all, while giving up a ton.
That area of the game is what got them unceremoniously bounced in last season’s playoffs, and despite the Oilers actually being even worse than the Flames in that area recently, those aforementioned superstars named Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl happen to be two of the most dangerous players in the league off the rush.
Overall, the advantage at even strength should go to the Flames, but let’s go beyond that and look at special teams as well.
The tiny sample of rush chances on special teams wildly disrupts this chart, but the important thing to notice here is that the Oilers are much better from the slot area on special teams than they are at even strength, and thing are even better when it comes to controlling slot passes.
The Oilers get outshot from the perimeter, but when you’re on special teams and control the slot, who cares? The only hitch they have on special teams is being outplayed on cycle chances, and that is a little troubling since their best asset is controlling slot passes. The Oilers’ issue off the cycle isn’t giving up a bunch of chances, but generating them, meaning all those excellent slot passes aren’t turning into shot attempts, which is a lot of good work wasted.
The thing is, the Oilers have the top power play in the league with a nearly 30 per cent conversion rate on the season, so if they’re not turning those slot passes into shot attempts at the moment, that just makes the potential of starting to connect on those plays even scarier.
The Flames aren’t as strong as the Oilers have been on special teams, especially from the inner slot where they’ve been giving up too many shots, but overall they’re not bad, except for off the forecheck where they’ve been very vulnerable.
What they don’t have is a big advantage in the passing game. The Oilers and Flames give up about the same number of slot-passes against on special teams, but the Oilers outpace the Flames drastically on offence in that category.
Without the pre-shot movement that the Oilers enjoy, the Flames haven’t had nearly as deadly a power play.
The more special teams play between the two teams, the more the advantage would shift to the Oilers, but the Flames are the drastically superior even-strength team.
Playoff hockey usually sees fewer calls overall, but I think it’s safe to say the mayhem of the last game between these two teams might produce some penalty-filled affairs, so the outcome is far less predictable than it might look on paper.
The Flames do have one more advantage over the Oilers, though. Dave Rittich and Cam Talbot have simply been much better than Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, especially lately. Smith has been solid of late, but Talbot has been brilliant, and I have much more confidence in Calgary’s duo in a seven-game series.
We should all hope we get to see how this one plays out though, because it might be the most entertaining series the 2020 playoffs could give us.