So far, in a series written on potential first-round matchups, I’ve looked at the Chicago Blackhawks, Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks. Two of those teams are not likely candidates to face the Oilers, but to be thorough, we explored the optics of a Blackhawks and/or Wild series anyways. What we’ve discovered is that it’s probably best Edmonton will be playing someone else.
On paper, Edmonton seems to stack up better against their fellow Pacific Division rivals. One of those teams is the San Jose Sharks. Would the Sharks be a better fit for the Oilers? If the playoffs were to start today, this is the team the Oilers would be facing.
The Odds: Pretty Good to Meet Up
These two teams have been within spitting distance of each other for a while. In fact, all four Pacific Division teams could land anywhere in the playoff brackets at this point. A variety of combinations of the Sharks, Ducks, Flames and Oilers finishing in and around the same point totals means these two teams meeting each other in the first round is more than possible.
At the start of any given season, San Jose was always a heavy favorite in Stanley Cup prediction polls. They were also viewed as the team that no one could trust to live up to their expectations. A betting man kept their money away from the Sharks as their reputation as choke artists began to haunt them and it wasn’t until their 2015-16 postseason run that the view may have changed. Is one season of strong playoff victories enough? With the recent consecutive losses that San Jose has experienced in the month of March, some are starting to let that doubt creep back in.
Regardless of perception, the San Jose Sharks are the most experienced Western Conference team when it comes to the playoffs. Their forwards don’t score as often as some of the other Pacific Division teams forwards do, but their blue line is the cream of the crop, running their offensive numbers up and allowing fewer goals against than almost any other playoff-bound team (excluding Anaheim).
Leading the way as usual for the Sharks is Joe Pavelski, Joe Thornton, Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau. After those four, San Jose’s offense is pretty dry. That is, of course, until you recognize that the Sharks most productive player on offense is a defenseman.
Brent Burns is now the unofficial leader of the Sharks. He leads the team with 73 points and 28 goals. He’s the most dangerous weapon the Sharks possess and he shoots the puck from literally everywhere. Any team that can keep Burns at bay stands a chance at victory.
Examining the other first-round matchup possibilities, it became clear that the Oilers outdid them all in terms of their high-level, elite scoring. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl offered the best one-two punch in any of those series. With San Jose as an opponent, this still rings true. That said, San Jose’s top offensive talent delivers for them on a regular basis.
Edmonton’s advantage will have to come from its offensive depth. If the Oilers can manage to limit the scoring from players like Pavelski and Thornton, the Oilers go seven forwards deep with players who have 30 or more points. Edmonton is a true four-line team and the Sharks third and fourth lines should be outmatched.
Defensively, Edmonton offers depth and as a unit and a top-five talent to block shots. The Oilers will have to try and contain Burns who shoots a ton. Shutting down Burns is next to impossible, but if the Oilers can limit his opportunities and block his countless shot attempts, the rest of the Sharks don’t offer many shots on net.
When it comes to experience in the playoffs, it’s not close. San Jose has the heavy advantage. When it comes to speed, the Oilers have the edge. This series then becomes a youth and enthusiasm versus experience battle.
Over the course of the 2016-17 regular season, the Oilers and Sharks were very evenly matched. Through three games, each team had a victory in regulation and San Jose squeaked out an overtime win. Goals for versus goals against were a dead-heat at nine each and the power play and penalty kill numbers were comparable.
In goal, the numbers are also close with Edmonton leading ever-so-slightly. Cam Talbot can outplay his counterpart and he’ll likely have to with two lines that are always dangerous for the Sharks.
The biggest difference between these two teams now is the confidence each takes into the postseason. If the Oilers can continue to roll and the Sharks continue to struggle, momentum favors the Oilers in a big way. A young team like Edmonton’s may need only confidence to reach that next level.
The Sharks have experience, but doubt can create mistakes and too many mistakes are death in the playoffs. I like Edmonton’s chances in this series, especially if the Sharks enter having not gotten back on the winning track. That may mean catching San Jose in the first round where they haven’t had a series victory to regain their swagger.