Oilers equipped to exploit Blackhawks’ weaknesses in potential playoff series

Elliotte Friedman goes into detail about how a potential 24-team NHL playoff format might look, which teams aren't happy, and how to get over those barriers.

EDMONTON — There was a time not so long ago when a playoff series between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers would have had one team labelled as “just happy to be there.”

It still does, but boy have times changed.

In the “play-in” series being considered by the National Hockey League — a best-of-five series that would whittle 12 playoff teams in each Conference down to eight — the Blackhawks would enter as the Western Conference’s 12th place team. Only in the Blackhawks’ wildest dreams did they see themselves as a playoff team back on March 11, the last day of play before the season was put on pause. They were seven points and five teams removed from the final wildcard spot with a dozen games left to play, despite a 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on March 11.

Miraculously, Chicago would receive an invite to the post-season under the NHL’s new plan — and as the final qualifier they get Edmonton, the fifth-ranked team out West. (Had Edmonton not lost to Winnipeg on March 11 they would have edged Dallas out for the bye round).

So, let’s look at a Play-in Round matchup between two teams that haven’t met in the post-season since the Blackhawks swept Edmonton in the 1992 Campbell Conference Final — the only time in four post-season meetings that Chicago has prevailed.

At First Glance

On the surface, this stacks up as one of the NHL’s worst defensive teams against an Oilers club that has the league’s best powerplay (29.5 per cent), and the NHL’s top two leading scorers (Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid). Chicago gives up the most shots in the entire NHL at 35.1 per game — not great when the post-season rolls around and goals become that much more precious.

But it gets worse for Chicago: According to the website Natural Stat Trick, the Blackhawks allowed the most scoring chances in the entire NHL in 2019-20, and were second from the top in high danger chances against. Those stats don’t translate to playoff wins, no matter who the opponent is. But it’s fair to say that a weak defensive team of this magnitude is the matchup the Oilers would drool over.

Hey, there’s a reason the Blackhawks are a 12th place team.

Let’s Dig a Little Deeper

You could say that trading goalie Robin Lehner at the deadline belies the fact that Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wasn’t planning on icing a team beyond Game 82. However, a completely healthy Corey Crawford in goal is as capable of stealing a short series as any goalie out West, and the fact he posted a 2.77 GAA and .917 save percentage behind this Blackhawks defence is testimony to just how strong a season Crawford had.

One more fancy stat: The Blackhawks had the sixth highest high danger save percentage in the NHL, while Edmonton’s duo of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith ranked 19th. Now, that can be a volume stat — the more chances, the better the number — but those who watched the Blackhawks closely this season will tell you they needed fabulous goaltending just to be a 12th place team out West.

In a short series, a hot goaltender — especially an experienced one like Crawford — can be a difference-maker.

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Why Edmonton is better

There is no doubt, Edmonton isn’t a very dangerous team at even strength, with the 27th best Corsi (47.87) in hockey. Only two NHL teams gave up more goals at five-on-five.

What they have however, are two forward lines that are capable of scoring a goal per game, and a bottom-six group that will kick one in every other game as well. On the powerplay, Edmonton ranked seventh at creating high danger chances at five-on-four, but scored the most powerplay goals in the NHL. Translation: With multiple options and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ skill complimenting Draisaitl and McDavid, the Oilers don’t always need a high danger chance to produce a PP goal.

Edmonton’s PP produces a goal in roughly four out of every five games. For the 2019-20 season, teams to score at least one power-play goal in a game have a .616 per cent win percentage.

On the other side of that coin, the Oilers penalty kill ranked second in the NHL at 84.4 per cent while Chicago’s powerplay is 28th at 15.2 per cent. Edmonton wins the special teams battle in this series. In a 3-2 league, despite some flaws, Edmonton is pretty good at getting to three.

Why Chicago has a chance

Any team with Patrick Kane has a chance in a big game. No one loves the spotlight like Kane, who gives the Blackhawks a chance any time they’re trailing by one late in a game or in overtime. He is one of hockey’s all-time money players.

Crawford is a steeled veteran who, like everyone else, should be in peak health. The shorter the series the more important the goalie matchup, and while we’re not sure who starts Game 1 for Edmonton, the two-time Cup winner Crawford will likely play every minute for the ‘Hawks.

If the goalie can allow the Blackhawks to hang around, they’ve got the ability to win games late.

The Verdict

If you go strictly by points, this is the fourth team from the top of the West standings going up against the fourth team from the bottom. There are so many wildcards to these potential 2020 playoffs — fitness, no home-ice advantage, the rust factor — we would say that if a normal Round 1 annually gives us two or three upsets in eight series, this “play-in” round might go two-for-four in each Conference.

But in a situation where everybody is fresh and healthy, I’ll take youth over experience. Edmonton’s best players are in their mid-20s, while Chicago’s are in their young 30’s.

Centre Jonathan Toews would likely get the McDavid matchup. That leaves Draisaitl for 18-year-old Kirby Dach, or the defensively unsteady Dylan Strome. The Blackhawks don’t have enough centremen to keep Edmonton in check offensively, and their defence is weak. That leads to powerplays, which leads to goals against.

Neither team is great defensively, so the team that has the puck the majority of the time will win.

That will be Edmonton, in four games.

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