Eight years after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel headlined the loaded 2015 draft, the two will clash in a Stanley Cup Playoff battle packed with intrigue.
The Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers are both arriving in Round 2 on a roll. After getting drubbed 5-1 to start their first-round series with the Winnipeg Jets, the Knights won four straight games against Winnipeg, scoring at least four goals in each of them and allowing more than two just once.
The Oilers, meanwhile, are riding a three-game winning streak themselves. Edmonton fell behind 2-1 in its first-round matchup with the Kings and was losing 3-0 to L.A. in the first period of Game 4 before storming back to tie that contest, then winning it in overtime on a Zach Hyman tally. That big ‘W’ sent Edmonton on its way.
Zooming out, both these clubs have been hot for a while. Vegas was the second-best team from the all-star break to the end of the season (.790 points percentage), while Edmonton was No. 3 (.766).
Vegas finished atop the Pacific Division with 111 points, two more than the 109 second-place Edmonton ended the season with. The Knights placed ahead of the Oilers despite claiming just one win in their four head-to-head matchups.
Golden Knights: 1-2-1
Oilers X-Factor: What happens when the first line isn’t on the ice?
The Oilers will always be led by the scoring exploits of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Against the Kings, Evan Bouchard joined the party by producing 10 points from the back end (with eight of them coming on the power play).
It’s not that nobody else contributed, but as the stakes get higher and the draws get tougher, the Oilers’ ability to win in the post-season will be impacted greatly by what they get from the support crew. After a breakout 100-point season, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was limited to four assists versus L.A.; can Evander Kane — who led last year’s post-season with 13 goals and did pot three against the Kings — get on a serious heater and score a half-dozen in a series? Any chance the fourth trio of Derek Ryan between Kailer Yamamoto and Klim Kostin can build on a monster close-out showing in Game 6?
Vegas X-factor: Cool story, Bro
For the second series in a row, Laurent Brossoit is facing a former team in the playoffs. The 30-year-old was more than up for the task of dispatching the Jets, posting a .915 save percentage in that series. Now he’s set to stare down an Oilers team he was a part of for a handful of seasons to start his NHL career, including when McDavid and Co. had their first taste of playoff success in 2017. Vegas’ crease has been a crazy subplot the past couple years and this season was no different with Logan Thompson, Adin Hill and, yes, even Jonathan Quick getting reps at different points of the calendar. Now here’s Brossoit, who wasn’t healthy enough to play regularly until late March, but closed the year strong and kept it going in the playoffs. You know the Oilers are going to get their chances, so it will be critical for the 6-foot-3 stopper to continue his solid play.
Key Stat: The Oilers’ 56.3 per cent success rate on the power play
Edmonton was the deadliest team in the league with the man advantage in the regular season and it torched the Kings in Round 1 by scoring on nine of its 16 opportunities. The Golden Knights, meanwhile, struggled to kill penalties all year (25th in the league at 74.7 per cent) and, sure enough, the Jets went five-for-12 versus Vegas in Round 1. This could be a potentially poisonous mix for the Golden Knights.
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
How the Oilers win this series:
With more of the same offensively and enough saves from Stuart Skinner — or Jack Campbell. Edmonton was the top-scoring team in the regular season and the top-scoring team in Round 1 of the playoffs, even while facing a Kings squad known for playing a tough, stifling system. The Oilers will kill you on the power play, but also do more than enough damage at even-strength.
On the flip side, Skinner got the job done in his first-ever NHL playoff series, but some of his underlying numbers weren’t exactly inspiring. Campbell, of course, came in and shut the door in the big Game 4 comeback so it will be interesting to see how much rope Skinner gets from coach Jay Woodcroft should he hit a speed bump or two early on in the series. (For what it’s worth, Campbell has a .918 career playoff save percentage in 15 appearances).
How the Golden Knights win this series:
Well, staying out of the penalty box as much as possible would be a fantastic start. You have to know coach Bruce Cassidy is stressing the need for discipline with his team given the unfavourable combo of Edmonton’s lethal power play mixed with Vegas’ subpar penalty-killing we outlined above.
While Vegas can’t match Edmonton’s high-end talent — can any team, really? — the Knights know they can get contributions from up and down the lineup. Eichel got his first taste of NHL playoff action and responded with five points in five games centering the top line. The second unit got a huge boost when Mark Stone returned to the lineup for the post-season and showed great chemistry alongside centre Chandler Stephenson. Third-line pivot William Karlsson, meanwhile, tied Stephenson for the Round 1 Knights goal-scoring lead with four. Yes, they can spread the scoring around in Vegas.
While Eichel was productive in Round 1, it will be interesting to see if he can up his game a notch facing the only guy who was drafted ahead of him in 2015, No. 97 in Edmonton. A series like this is why Vegas traded for Eichel 18 months ago; the stage is set for him to arrive as a true, elite No. 1 guy in the desert. One thing to keep an eye on for Vegas; both Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb had to miss the close-out game versus Winnipeg. If the Knights are going to slow down the Oilers at all, it would help tremendously to have their full complement of defencemen available.