EDMONTON — Did the Chicago Blackhawks think they were going to be a playoff team?
Well, if they did, dealing away goalie Robin Lehner and defenceman Erik Gustafsson at the trading deadline was a curious way to stock up for a playoff run.
So, here we are: The 12th place team in the Western Conference going up against an Edmonton Oilers team that, had they won instead of lost on the season’s final day (March 11), would have ranked fourth instead of fifth and received a bye through the Qualifying Round.
Out East, the 4-12 matchup pits the Pittsburgh Penguins up against the Montreal Canadiens. We’re not sure which underdog faces the longest odds, but if you put your money on either of the Original Six teams, you’d be in for nice payday if the upset occurs.
Here is a look at Edmonton versus Chicago, two teams that haven’t met in a playoff series since the Clarence Campbell Conference Final in 1992. Oh, a few things have changes since then.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Edmonton: 47.87 CF% (27th), 47.32 GF% (25th), 91.23 SV% (25th), 8.43 SH% (13th), 0.997 PDO (20th)
Chicago: 48.45 CF% (22nd), 50.00 GF% (18th), 92.51 SV% (8th), 8.42 SH% (14th), 1.009 PDO (7th)
Edmonton: 29.5 PP% (1st), 84.4 PK% (2nd), 223 GF (11th), 215 GA (21st)
Chicago: 15.2 PP% (28th ), 82.1% PK (9th), 208 GF (19th), 214 GA (19th)
By whatever measure you choose to use, the Blackhawks give up the most and highest-quality scoring chances of any of the 24 playoff teams. Chicago’s weakest area is its D-corps, which was propped up mightily this season by the goaltending duo of Lehner (dealt to Vegas) and Corey Crawford, who only practiced with the team once prior to entering the bubble due to a bout with COVID-19, allowing three goals in a single period of work.
This is where this series will be decided: Edmonton’s top six will put enormous pressure on a Blackhawks defensive group, and inevitably, that means power-play opportunities for the NHL’s top PP unit. The Blackhawks will need stellar goaltending to keep the Oilers to three or fewer goals. Anything less, and Chicago will find themselves in games where they may need four or five goals just to get the game to overtime.
Edmonton’s formula is pretty simple: They tend to get an even-strength goal from Connor McDavid’s line, one from Leon Draisaitl’s line, and a power-play goal. If someone else kicks one in, that gets them to four in a 3-2 league. Game over.
Edmonton is average when it comes to defending. But they are just deadly when McDavid, Draisaitl or the power-play unit has the puck. Chicago can exploit an Oilers team saves percentage that ranked 25th at five-on-five, they have experience in Jonathan Toews and the game-breaker Patrick Kane, and young centreman Kirby Dach could become a legend in Chicago if he can weather an expected assignment against one of the Oilers’ top two centres.
But it is a lot to ask for a rookie to handle Draisaitl, and perhaps it is just as big an ask for a 32-year-old Toews to keep up with McDavid. In the end, if Crawford doesn’t find his game in a week of practice, the resulting sag in team confidence could do the Blackhawks in all on its own.
Edmonton X-Factor: Connor McDavid.
The Oilers captain has taken over games against far superior D-corps than the Blackhawks’. If he is the de facto series MVP, this will be a short series.
Chicago X-Factor: Corey Crawford.
Unless Malcolm Subban — who at age 26 has an NHL save percentage of .899 — comes up with an out-of-body experience, we expect the ‘Hawks to go with their two-time Cup winner Crawford. If his game returns, he will allow Chicago to hang around and win some games. If Crawford is anything less than stellar, this could be a three-game series.
The biggest question facing Edmonton is: Goaltending.
Head coach Dave Tippett prefers Mike Smith, but he nimbly moved back and forth between Smith and Mikko Koskinen all season long, where Koskinen actually posted better numbers than Smith. The bad news is, Edmonton doesn’t have a true No. 1. The good news? The Oilers have two guys who won almost equally this season, and the Oilers finished fifth out West in winning percentage.
If Edmonton gets saves, they’ll beat Chicago. If Crawford makes three huge saves and then Kane drifts a weak one past an Oilers goalie, it could be a long series for the Oilers.
The biggest question facing Chicago is: Scoring chances against, and penalties.
The Blackhawks just can not continue to surrender Grade A chances at the same rate they did all season long and expect to beat anyone, let alone Edmonton. Also, puck control in the Blackhawks’ end cannot lead to shorthanded situations, because the Oilers’ power-play is deadly. So is the Oilers’ penalty kill, in case the ‘Hawks thought a special-teams battle might be a good idea.
Chicago needs to play low-octane hockey, knowing that Edmonton will give up their share of goals. The Blackhawks can’t go chance-for-chance with Edmonton, even with snipers like Kane, Alex Debrincat and 30-goal man Dominik Kubalik. They want boring games, where McDavid and Draisaitl don’t fill the highlight reels.