The Edmonton Oilers are still trying to get the sour taste out of their mouths after an early exit at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. While the team has had success against their first-round opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, during the regular season, the playoffs are an entirely different beast. The series will undoubtedly be very tight and hard-fought, and the Oilers’ success will be riding on the following X-factors to emerge victorious in their first-round series.
Balanced Scoring Attack
The Oilers have been very top-heavy in terms of their offense this season with Conner McDavid and Leon Draisaitl leading the charge to no one’s surprise. The question marks arise after those two players in terms of who can be relied upon to produce offensively throughout the rest of the lineup.
After the star duo, two defensemen in Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse sit third and fourth in team scoring, with 48 and 36 points, respectively. Ryan-Nugent Hopkins ranks fifth with 35 points and has not been his usual self for most of the season, while Kailer Yamamoto (21 points in 52 games played) is another player who will be looked to provide scoring on the team’s second line.
There is a significant gap between the secondary scoring on the team that could create a mismatch if the Jets’ depth can contribute on a nightly basis.
The Oilers will need to ensure that they are getting contributions up and down their lineup in order to support McDavid and Draisaitl, especially if the two will be playing together on the team’s top line. If their offense is a two-man show, there is room for the Jets to capitalize on the Oilers’ lack of depth scoring, especially if McDavid and Draisaitl are held off the scoresheet (even though that is unlikely).
Vezina Caliber Goaltending
Although it is somewhat cliche to call goaltending in a series an X-Factor, it is hard not to, considering how the starting goaltenders’ seasons have gone. Of course, goaltending is a crucial part of any series, but considering the caliber of goalie the Jets have in Connor Hellebuyck and a rejuvenated veteran in Mike Smith the Oilers will start between their pipes, they will play a significant role in the outcome of the series.
Smith has played lights out for the Oilers all season long when healthy and his leadership and work ethic echoes through the team. He has stymied the Jets all season, going 4-0-0 against them with a 2.62 GAA, .936 SV%, and one shutout. Those numbers should give the team confidence heading into the series, and if the Oilers get the same Mike Smith against Winnipeg that they got in the regular season, they should be in good hands.
On the other end, the Oilers could have their hands full if the Jets can get their best out of Hellebuyck, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Unlike Smith, Hellebuyck has struggled against the Oilers in the regular season with a woeful 2-5-0 mark along with a 3.96 GAA and .877 SV%, which are nowhere near his Vezina-caliber numbers from a year ago.
He also has a losing record in the playoffs throughout his career with a 12-15-0 record, so the early edge in the goaltending department goes to the Oilers heading into the series. Hellebuyck will be a big X-Factor in this series and if he can find his game and translate it into the playoffs, he is more than capable of stealing games for the Jets, and he’s definitely good enough to steal a series.
Continue Special Teams Success
Although special teams are another playoff cliche, when you dive deeper into the numbers you see why this is an important factor for the Oilers in this series. When you have the top-end talent that the Oilers have at their disposal to load up a top power-play unit, and add a mobile puck-moving offensive defenseman like Tyson Barrie as the quarterback, you end up with the top power-play percentage in the league. The Oilers’ power play has clicked at 27.6% through the regular season, and they have scored a league-high 48 goals on the man advantage.
The Oilers have also been very good on the penalty kill, with an 82.47% success rate which ranks ninth-best in the league. They will have to continue their success against a talented Jets power play that has clicked at a 23% clip and is led by the likes of Mark Scheifele, who has a team-leading 17 power-play points, and Kyle Connor who has a team-high 10 power-play goals. The Oilers’ penalty kill was the second-best in the regular season in 2019-20, but they were unable to carry that over in the postseason bubble last year, as they killed penalties at a 77.8% rate which was sixth-worst in the playoffs last season.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Oilers allowed two shorthanded goals in their final two regular-season games – hopefully, they can snap out of that habit heading into their Round 1 series against a potent offensive team like the Jets. In order to avoid a similar defeat like last season, this area of their game is a crucial X-Factor heading into this series.
The Oilers will be hungry to make a deeper run than their last playoff appearance in the bubble, and how deep they will go could be dependent on these factors. The Oilers can only really control two of these three X-factors heading into this matchup, with the other one resting on which Connor Hellebuyck shows up in the series.
If the Oilers can focus on the areas of their game that they can control, by ensuring they have offensive support behind the top two scorers in the league while also maintaining their dominance as the top power play in the league, these factors could be crucial difference-makers in determining who gets to move onto the next round.