Last Tuesday the NHL and the NHLPA officially announced their 24-team return-to-play playoff format proposal to award the Stanley Cup. There are still a number of hurdles to overcome. But if all goes according to plan, the Chicago Blackhawks will face the Edmonton Oilers in a best-of-five first-round series to determine who moves on to the “official” 16-team playoff bracket.
That’s right, the 12th place (in the Western conference) Blackhawks will match up against the fifth place Oilers (by points percentage). Should the Blackhawks, who were last place in the Central division before the pause, really be included in this scenario?
Yeah, probably not. But the Blackhawks, New York Rangers (11th place in the Eastern conference) and the Montreal Canadiens (12th place in the East) are all huge revenue markets in the hockey world. So the 24-team format made business sense. Ah, money and clout usually prevail. So let’s take this gift we were given and embrace more hockey for the Blackhawks!
That being said, can the Blackhawks beat the Oilers? I’m glad you asked. Let’s look at the dynamics of the matchup.
Blackhawks/Oilers Regular Season Series
The Blackhawks and the Oilers met three times in the regular season, with the Blackhawks winning two out of the three contests. The Blackhawks scored 10 goals to the Oilers’ nine, and outshot them in all three games, for a total of 107-83.
The Blackhawks’ superstars were productive against the Oilers. Patrick Kane scored two goals and added two assists in this series. Jonathan Toews tallied two goals and one helper. Brandon Saad had two goals, as did Alex DeBrincat.
Meanwhile, the Oilers boast the NHL’s two top point producers in Leon Draisaitl (110 points) and Connor McDavid (97 points). Yet McDavid was held pointless in the two games he played against the Blackhawks. He didn’t suit up due to injury on Feb. 11, which was ironically the contest the Oilers won.
Draisaitl, on the other hand, is credited with a goal and six! assists against the Blackhawks this season. And his linemate Kailer Yamamoto claims three goals. Definitely a duo to attempt to neutralize in this upcoming series.
Goaltender Corey Crawford played twice against the Oilers this season, sporting an average .920 save percentage and a 2.77 goals against average in the series. The Oilers’ Mike Smith was in net for all three contests against the Blackhawks, with an average .917 SV% and a 2.95 GAA.
Advantage Crawford. Oh, and did I mention Crow has 87 playoffs games under his belt, and two Stanley Cups?!
Power Play Problems
One disadvantage the Blackhawks will face in this series is with the power play. The Oilers converted three-of-seven power play attempts against the Blackhawks in the regular season, while the Blackhawks failed to score in eight attempts. Overall, the Oilers lead the league on the man advantage (29.5% conversion rate), whereas the Blackhawks rank 28th at a paltry 15.2%.
But the good news is the Blackhawks penalty kill has been a strength for them this season. They’re ninth in the league, killing 82.1% of their penalties. Now to just get that done against the red-hot Oilers.
Oh, and the Oilers actually rank above the Blackhawks on the penalty kill at 84.4% (second in the league). That’s not good news for a team that has struggled to score on the power play. Special teams will definitely be key in this qualifying series.
The NHL pause could come as an advantage for the Blackhawks regarding the health of the team. They have dealt with numerous injuries throughout the season, but the break may have allowed some players to heal. A few of those players could now be ready to go once play resumes.
Calvin de Haan
The most important of these would be defenseman Calvin de Haan. De Haan was announced out for the season in late December because of a right shoulder injury. He underwent surgery on Dec. 27 and was expected to be sidelined four-to-five months. But according to Scott Powers of The Athletic, “a source said he is expected to be fully healed by June and has been feeling good.” (from ‘Which injured Blackhawks player could return if the season resumes?’, The AthleticCHI – 5/22/20)
This is excellent news for the Blackhawks! De Haan was performing extremely well before he was hurt, picking up the slack for top defenseman Duncan Keith who was dealing with his own minor injury. It’s no secret the Blackhawks defense is a weak link, and having this added depth could be HUGE for the team.
Before the pause, the Blackhawks were icing Keith and rookie Adam Boqvist on the top defensive pairing, while rookie Lucas Carlsson and Connor Murphy held down the second pairing. Olli Maatta and Slater Koekkoek rounded out the third pairing.
De Haan would likely take Carlsson’s place on the second pairing, leaving Carlsson and Koekkoek to battle it out for the final spot. Either way, de Haan’s presence will definitely bolster the blue line.
Another player the Blackhawks might see back in the fold is Drake Caggiula. The gritty forward has been in and out of the lineup this season with concussion issues and most recently a right-hand injury.
If he is available, his versatility would be priceless. Caggiula has been inserted up and down the lineup this season, and he always seems to find a way to make an impact. He’s known for his tenaciousness in retrieving pucks and getting in front of the net. Combine this with his energy and a fair amount of skill; all of which are great qualities to possess in a playoff push.
Plus, Caggiula played the first three seasons of his NHL career with the Oilers. He should be extra motivated to defeat his former team.
I know, I know. The Blackhawks haven’t had a whole lot of success the last few years. While they won three Stanley Cups, that was way back in 2010, 2013, and 2015. You can’t live in the past.
But guess what? There are a number of players still on the team who were around for those Cups. And that experience and winning mentality is invaluable in the playoffs. It can definitely give a team an edge.
The Blackhawks boast three Conn Smythe winners (most valuable player in the playoffs) in Toews, Kane and Keith. We already mentioned Crawford has hoisted the Cup twice, as has left-winger Saad.
Maatta won the Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. De Haan played 16 past playoff games with the New York Islanders, as well as 12 contests with the Carolina Hurricanes last season.
Forward Ryan Carpenter participated in 17 postseason matchups with the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural 2017-18 Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final. It’s unclear whether he will play (back injury), but Zack Smith suited up for 19 playoff contests with the Ottawa Senators in the 2016-17 season. Caggiula has 13 postseason games with the Oilers under his belt from 2016-17 as well.
Added up, that’s a lot of playoff experience!
The Oilers, on the other hand, have made one playoff berth in the last 13 seasons. In 2016-17, they lost in the second round to the Anaheim Ducks. Veteran forward James Neal boasts 104 playoffs appearances, and Alex Chiasson won the Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018. Other than that, no one else on the team even comes close.
Again, advantage Blackhawks.
The NHL 24-team playoff format is unique and somewhat controversial, but it’s what has been determined as the plan of action moving forward. The fifth-seed Oilers are a talented team that will be very tough to beat. Especially for 12th-seed Blackhawks’ team that has struggled with inconsistencies and injuries all season.
But anything can happen in the playoffs! For the reasons discussed above, I think the Blackhawks have a very legitimate shot at winning.