EDMONTON — In our tireless efforts to report on the Edmonton Oilers and their upcoming Qualifying Round opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks, we poured over Chicago’s entire pre-season as a pre-scout on the 12th-place Blackhawks.
And let me tell you, it was quite a project.
OK, so the “pre-season” existed of one game against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday. And “tireless effort” meant about three hours of watching hockey.
So what did we learn? For starters, the Blues have seldom looked more disinterested, knowing that they still have three relatively meaningless games to play before their playoffs begin. This was a no-hitter, as St. Louis barely tested Chicago starter Corey Crawford, or reliever Malcolm Subban for that matter, in a 4-0 Blackhawks win.
“It’s nice,” said Chicago centre Dylan Strome. “I don’t know if we beat St. Louis since I’ve been here (0-4 vs Blues this season). I don’t think so. It’s just an exhibition game, but we feel a lot better now than if we’d have lost 4-0.”
From an Oilers standpoint, it is a good lesson: If you sleep on these Blackhawks, they can feed you the way they did the Blues.
Here’s a look at what the Oilers will be facing when their series opens Saturday afternoon:
When it comes to the Blackhawks and Crawford, they aren’t asking “how? Just “how many?”
Chicago’s No. 1 played the first half of the game and was flawless on 11 St. Louis shots, though we’re not entirely sure the lethargic Blues counted three legit, Grade-A scoring chances during that time. But remember, the last time out — an intra-squad game in Chicago — Crawford got scorched for three goals in one period and was lifted amid a cloud of concern.
“It’s great to have him back,” said winger Brandon Saad. “We have confidence in all of our goalies … but he anchors our team out there. We all get confidence when he’s in the net.”
After missing almost the entire training camp while recovering from COVID-19, Crawford had this game and now a couple more practices to get up to standard for a start in Game 1 against the Oilers on Saturday. He looked just fine against a tepid Blues attack on Wednesday.
How does that translate to facing Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Oilers in a best-of-five playoff round? Well, Wednesday’s result was better than the alternative, right?
“He just calms us all down,” said Strome. “He has all that playoff experience, and he’s been great all year. Obviously, we feel comfortable and confident with him in the net.”
Said head coach Jeremy Colliton: “It was a good step forward for him.”
Here are the Hawks’ lines and defensive pairings you can expect for Game 1 against Edmonton:
Colliton, unplugged, on playing Edmonton:
“We know they have tremendous, high-end skill, particularly upfront,” he began. “It’s going to be a challenge, especially when they play on separate lines we know they’re going to be on the ice for a lot of the game. There’s not going to be a break.
“We’re going to have to be very, very detailed away from the puck, and of course with the puck. Because if you turn the puck over against that group, the time between when they win the puck and the puck’s in the back of your net, you can barely blink.
“So, the awareness for our guys of every five seconds is life or death. In a best-of-five playoff series, the time to ease into it, to see how it goes, is probably not there. We’ll talk about having the urgency to play the right way right off the bat, and be aware of the guys who are on the ice at all times. And a lot of the things we did (versus St. Louis) will transfer.”
The Toews line was the best line on the ice for either team, a message from the Team Canada centre Toews and Calder candidate Dominik Kubalik (two goals) that, along with Saad (one goal), they are a trio to be reckoned with. Kirby Dach was also very effective versus the Blues.
Toews has what the Oilers will have a couple of Olympics from now, but do not yet possess. He is battle-tested through three Stanley Cup Finals, two Olympic Games and that wild shootout sequence when he was 19 and representing Canada at the world juniors.
You can’t buy or manufacture what those types of experiences do for a player. Now, at age 32, if he can’t keep up with the young guys like McDavid, it could be a struggle. But when it comes to smarts and dealing with the stress and pressure of captaining an NHL team into the playoffs, Toews has something the Oilers do not have — yet.
“There were some really good, mature performance up and down the lineup,” Colliton said. “That’s the approach we need to have if we think we’re going to have success. It’s nice for the guys to have a positive feeling about themselves. But certainly, there are a lot of steps left as we prepare to play a really good team.
“We were cleaner and cleaner as the game went on with our puck-play and our breakouts.”
The way to get to Chicago’s forward lines is to cycle. The Blues forgot their bikes back in Missouri.
Edmonton has two lines that can score off the rush, or create chances off the cycle. They’re not a big, heavy group, but they are highly skilled, and like the Sedins used to do, they can put an opponent through the spin cycle for a while, and have someone pop out with a wide-open chance on goal.
We saw no evidence of how Chicago will work against the cycle against St. Louis. But credit the Blackhawks, they did not allow the Blues enough possession time to get anything going.
“Regardless of who we were playing we wanted to sharpen up or game,” Saad said. “We play a really good team on Saturday as well. For the full 60, overall it went pretty well.”