The Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks faced off for Game 1 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday under anything but ordinary conditions.
Firstly, there was a heat warning issued by Environment Canada for the Alberta capital and some area records may have been met or broken. Edmonton typically hosts hockey games at anywhere from freezing to as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius, not 31-32 Celsius.
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In addition to the mid-summer conditions, there are all the social distancing protocols in place to protect players, staff, and fans from the COVID-19 pandemic, which means silent arenas save for the public address announcer talking to himself and music and hockey noises that bleed into the broadcast booth.
The pre-game ceremony, led by Minnesota Wild’s Matt Dumba, added to the unusual start.
The Oilers Appeared Rusty
The Blackhawks prevailed by the score of 6-4. The Oilers tried in vain for a late-game comeback, but the effort was too little and too late.
The Oilers team defence appeared ill-prepared for the Blackhawks attack, which as expected, was led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and somewhat unexpectedly by Dominik Kubalik. The former two are elite veterans who know what it takes to win a Stanley Cup as Kane and Toews have accomplished the feat three times together.
Edmonton looked ready during their exhibition game against the Calgary Flames earlier this week but did not have the gears or intensity to play a playoff game Saturday. They are going to have to “bring it” on Monday if they hope to fulfill their promise as the better team.
They hadn’t played a meaningful game in 143 days, which is longer than a typical off-season. They looked exactly like a team that hasn’t played for a very long time.
What Went Wrong
The Blackhawks plan was simple: contain Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid during all 5-on-5 play like their lives depend on it and try not to take penalties. They have the worst penalty-killing unit of the 24 teams in the post-season.
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It worked like a charm. Chicago did take penalties and they did pay for it against the league’s No. 1 PP at 29.5 percent efficiency. Draisaitl and McDavid each earned a goal and two assists, but as commented prior to the playoffs, they cannot bank on power-play opportunities to win games – they need to score 5-on-5. They didn’t, and that is going to be their Achilles heel.
Additionally, team defence was out the window. Several giveaways in their own end, passes up the middle, not getting the puck out of the zone and miss-timed passes on the breakout marred the play of the otherwise very slick Oilers machine.
They chased in their own end and defensively, they simply watched the Blackhawk cycle.
Starter Mike Smith cannot shoulder all the blame for three of the four goals that got by him during the first period, but he has played sharper. Mikko Koskinen took over after at the 30:46 mark of the game and slipped into the blue paint with his team down 5-1. He let in one goal on 19 shots, while Smith went 18-for-23.
Dominik Kubalik picked up five points on the six Blackhawks’ goals. The 24-year-old Czech forward scored twice and added three assists.
After the Oilers scored the first goal of the game – a power-play marker by McDavid, who neatly aimed top left corner while skating through the left faceoff circle – it was all downhill after that. The Blackhawks went up 4-1 during the first period and added two more during the second period.
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If the Oilers expect to win this series or any games at all, they absolutely need to go error-free in their own end when the Kane – Toews – Kubalik line is on the ice. The good news for Edmonton is that the same “one-elite-line” scenario that the Oilers have, the Blackhawks have as well. Each team will need to contain the other’s first line.
Coach Dave Tippett, known as a defensive specialist from his playing days and coaching tenures in Dallas and Phoenix, will need to reach deep into his bag of smothering team defence to demoralize the Blackhawks top line. It won’t be pretty, but like putting lipstick on a pig, at least she’s a date at the dance.