The San Jose Sharks went all the way to the Stanley Cup final last season, but they don’t look like the same team this time around. Many have cited injuries to Logan Couture and Joe Thornton as the reason for their recent lull, but they haven’t looked great even with those guys healthy. They seemed poised to win the Pacific Division at one point, but have since fallen to third place, losing home-ice advantage.
The Edmonton Oilers on the other hand, have been on a tear. They’re healthy, their star Connor McDavid has been putting up points with ease, and they look as good as they have all year-long. Are they in a prime position to unseat the defending Western Conference champions?
Regular Season Record
We all know that the playoffs are “a new season”, and everyone starts from scratch. There isn’t much onus put on regular season series, though they can hold a little bit of weight. The Oilers and Sharks met five times this season, and the Oilers came away with a 3-1-1 record.
The postseason is a whole different ball game, but the Oilers have a mental edge. They know they can beat the Sharks. Edmonton also has home-ice advantage, and lately they’ve been red-hot at Rogers Place. They set a franchise record winning their last nine games at home.
The Sharks have a .500 winning percentage on the road, while the Oilers have a .641 winning percentage at home. The Oilers have more goals per game, a better goals differential and a better powerplay percentage. The Oilers also lead the Sharks in all goaltending categories except goals against average, but it’s a small difference. The Sharks have better overall defensive stats but the two penalty kill percentages are virtually identical.
For all the talk that the Sharks are a big heavy team and the Oilers are soft, Edmonton averaged more hits per game. Unlike in years past, these Oilers will not pushed around, a big factor for their regular season success. By the numbers, the Oilers do hold a slight advantage over the Sharks. But games aren’t played on paper. Can the inexperienced Oilers overtake the wily veterans in San Jose?
Experience vs. Enthusiasm
The Sharks know all about playoff hockey. They’ve made it to the postseason the in 12 of the last 13 seasons. Last year was their first ever trip to the Stanley Cup final, where they ultimately fell short to the Pittsburgh Penguins. There was a sense that the sting of losing would make the Sharks even hungrier to win, and it certainly seemed that way coming out of the gate.
But the Sharks have struggled lately, going 4-6-0 in the last 10 games of the season. The Oilers conversely, have gone 8-2-0 in that same stretch, and are coming into the playoffs on a hot streak. Brent Burns looked like he was going to run away with the Norris and possibly the Hart Trophy, but he’s slowed way down, while the Oilers best player McDavid is on a 13-game point streak, and just captured the Art Ross Trophy with 100 points.
Experienced, veteran teams usually know how to raise their level of play in the postseason, but the Sharks haven’t always inspired confidence. Despite winning the division four times and the Presidents’ Trophy once, they have yet to capture a Stanley Cup. Similar to the Washington Capitals, they carry with them a reputation as being chokers when it matters most.
Although that label was somewhat forgotten last season, there’s still an aura around the Sharks, and their leadership, of not being able to win the big game. So despite all of their experience, many would argue that they still “don’t know how to win.” The Oilers on the other hand are coming in fresh. They had a complete turnaround this season, and are playing their best hockey.
The question is, will their lack of playoff experience fail them? Make no mistake, they do have guys who have been their before. Milan Lucic is a Stanley Cup champion. So is their head coach Todd McLellan. But their core is extremely green when it comes to the playoffs, and you have to wonder if the youthful enthusiasm will help or hurt them when all the chips are on the table.
Who Will Win?
Although the Oilers still had a chance to win the Pacific Division, finishing second was probably the best thing for them. As fun as a battle of Alberta would have been, the Oilers really didn’t need extra narratives going into their first playoff appearance since 2006. The Sharks look tired and worn down, and there are still question marks surrounding the health of Thornton and Couture.
The Oilers are playing confident, and with the brilliance of likely Hart Trophy winner McDavid, it’s hard not to be. But Jordan Eberle’s hat trick against the Canucks was perhaps even better news than Connor’s 100 points. The Oilers will need all their lines rolling to beat the Sharks, and with both Eberle and Lucic heating up, it bodes well for secondary scoring.
A few months ago, many would have cited an easy series win for the Sharks. But that’s not the case anymore. They will have to flip the switch here really quick, and do so while containing the speed and force of the Oilers. It may not be possible. No one could fault the Sharks for being weary after a trip to the Cup final. But that makes them the perfect prey for Edmonton.
The Oilers are going to learn about what it takes to win in the playoffs very quickly here, and they have to be prepared. But, (and this is almost surprising to say considering what the last 10 years have been like), they look ready.
Prediction: Oilers in six games.