With the announcement of the NHL’s return to play plan on Tuesday, the fifth-seeded Edmonton Oilers will face the 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the play-in round of the new 24-team playoff tournament. No official start date was announced, but this is a positive step towards getting the players back on the ice this summer.
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This will be the fifth playoff series between the clubs and the first since the 1992 Campbell Conference Final, which the Blackhawks swept in four games. Chicago was the class of the league during the 2010s, but the Oilers are now the stronger team and should win the series.
Here’s three reasons why the Oilers will beat the Blackhawks.
Power Play Dominance
The Blackhawks have plenty of talent and veteran experience, but the Oilers are deeper down the middle with a pair of Art Ross Trophy winners in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading the way. McDavid and Draisaitl are a threat to score whenever they step on the ice, but they are even more dangerous on the man advantage.
Draisaitl and McDavid finished first and second in the league in power play points this season with 44 and 43, respectively. The Oilers scored on 59 of their 200 power play opportunities for an NHL-best 29.5% efficiency. While many teams employee two power play units, Draisaitl and McDavid typically play the entire two minutes or until they score.
In addition, the 2019-20 Oilers’ power play operated at a higher rate than any of the powerhouse teams in Edmonton during the 1980s, featuring Hockey Hall of Fame players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey. (from ‘If there ever is a 2020 playoffs, watch out for Edmonton Oilers power play, better than even Gretzky Era units,’ Edmonton Journal, 03/16/2020)
The Blackhawks had the ninth-ranked penalty kill in the league this season at 82.1%, but the Oilers went three-for-eight (37.5%) on the power play against Chicago in 2019-20. Now, there will surely be fewer power plays in the playoffs, so the Oilers need to make their chances count.
New Players Have Time to Get Adjusted
With the Oilers sitting four points above the playoff cut line at the trade deadline in February, general manager Ken Holland brought in Andreas Athanasiou, Tyler Ennis and Mike Green for the playoff push. Athanasiou and Ennis were immediately put on McDavid’s wings and they each had a goal and an assist in their Oilers debut.
Green also looked good in his two games with the Oilers before suffering a sprained MCL. Ennis showed well in nine games with his hometown team, but Athanasiou didn’t acclimate as quickly, spending most of his time on the third and fourth lines.
With the benefit of having a training camp prior to the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, all of the Oilers in-season additions will have the time to develop chemistry with their new teammates. Athanasiou is among the fastest skaters in the NHL and scored 30 goals in 2018-19, which makes him an ideal player to play with McDavid. He has the chance to rebound from a rough 2019-20 season with a strong playoff performance.
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Ennis also had some nice moments on the top line, but he could add some skill to the third line if head coach Dave Tippett wants Zack Kassian in that position. Green gives the Oilers some added depth and should compete with Matt Benning for a third-pairing spot. On the other side, the Blackhawks moved out Robin Lehner and Erik Gustafsson at the deadline, which increases the Oilers’ chances in the series.
The Oilers not only have more talent up front, but they also have greater depth on the blue line. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson will take on a lot of the heavy lifting in their own zone and be responsible for shutting down the Blackhawks’ top forwards. Klefbom is also the team’s most consistent offensive defenceman, and he should be a factor in the series.
Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear complement each other well and will be looking to contribute at both ends of the ice. Nurse can skate the puck through the neutral zone and join the attack, while Bear does a great job of making short and quick passes up to the forwards. Nurse isn’t that much older than Bear, but he has some experience to pass along to Bear.
Caleb Jones and Green are my picks to start on the third pairing, but Kris Russell and Benning will surely be in the mix. Jones moves the puck very well, but he’s young and should be playing with a veteran of 880 NHL games like Green. I believe the Oilers would be comfortable sending out any of these eight defenders.
The Blackhawks still have Duncan Keith, but the rest of their defensive core shouldn’t strike fear into the opposition. Brent Seabrook isn’t expected to play due to injury, so Connor Murphy or rookie Adam Boqvist would probably be their next best option on the back end.
Unless Corey Crawford can steal a game or two for the Blackhawks as the last line of defence, I think the Oilers’ goaltending tandem of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen are more likely to backstop their team to victory.