Qualifying round preview: Analyzing the Chicago vs. Edmonton matchup
Plenty of superstar talent will be on display as the No. 5 and 12 seeds clash.
The Vegas Golden Knights will face St. Louis, Colorado and Dallas in the upcoming round robin tournament, the results of which will determine conference seeding heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which are set to begin Aug. 11.
But most Western Conference teams that just made the trek to the Edmonton bubble will be facing elimination in best-of-five qualifying series. As we approach the resumption of the NHL season, we’ll take a look at each of the four qualifying series, continuing with Edmonton vs. Chicago.
Chicago won two of the three contests between these teams in the regular season, although the loss of Robin Lehner, now a Golden Knight, could play a factor in this series, as Corey Crawford is coming out of illness and practiced just once in training camp.
The Edmonton Oilers finished the season with a 37-25-9 record and a .585 points percentage. Despite finishing second in the Pacific Division, the Oilers were the first team (by points percentage) to miss the round-robin tournament in the West and will face Chicago as the No. 5 seed.
The Oilers have made the playoffs just once in the last 14 seasons. To continue on to the actual playoffs, the Oilers will need to go through the last seed in the West in the Chicago Blackhawks (32-30-8), a team with lots of playoff experience.
The Oilers have a former Hart winner in Connor McDavid and a Hart nominee this season in Leon Draisaitl, who also won the Art Ross trophy after scoring the most points during the regular season (110 points, including 43 goals and 67 assists in 71 games).
McDavid didn’t do half bad this season either, scoring 34 goals and 63 assists for 97 points in 64 games. There’s quite a gap between them and the next-highest scorer, however, as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins put up 61.
The Oilers’ defense is headed by the duo of Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, who hold down the top two pairings with Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear respectively.
The Oilers called up Kailer Yamamoto, a 2017 first-round pick, on New Year’s Eve, and he began producing almost immediately. He turned out to be one of the most successful linemates for Draisaitl, scoring 26 points in 27 games. The Oilers also acquired Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis at the deadline, both of whom add additional goal scoring and speed to the Oilers’ roster.
The Oilers’ power play was first in the NHL with 10.64 goals per 60, a result of having McDavid and Draisaitl in addition to former Golden Knight James Neal, who scored 12 goals on the man advantage.
It’s also a result of Edmonton’s 7.32 expected goals per 60, near the top of the league, as well as its league-best 20.27 power-play shooting percentage. The Oilers’ system on the power play fuels their excellent play, but getting results from both of their elite centers helps as well.
Six players had double-digit points on the Oilers’ man advantage, including McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Neal and Klefbom, as well as bottom-six winger Alex Chiasson.
Plus, it won’t hurt to be playing in their own arena.
Surrounding McDavid and Draisaitl with enough talent to build a top six was one of the obstacles standing between the Oilers and the playoffs in years past. That obstacle went away this season, as players like Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto stepped up, as Edmonton’s new general manager, Ken Holland, made a trade for a player he drafted in Detroit in Athanasiou, and as Zack Kassian, an NHL veteran, had a career-best season with 34 points, including 15 goals.
The stars of the Oilers’ top two lines will always be in the middle, but Nugent-Hopkins and Yamamoto helped Draisaitl to a 51.36 Corsi and 52.17 shot share at even strength, as well as a 54.18 percent expected goal share. While the goal is for McDavid and Draisaitl to not be on the same line, there’s always the option of reuniting them late in a game or in the middle of the series if necessary.
Playing with McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins and Kassian did significantly worse in every category except high-danger share, where they had a 52.38 percent high-danger share. Ennis, meanwhile, helped Yamamoto and Draisaitl continue their excellent possession stats.
The third member of the Draisaitl and Yamamoto line will be an X-factor in the series, no matter who it is.
As a team, the Edmonton Oilers don’t have great goaltending, as Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith combined for just a .906 save percentage, largely a result of Smith’s .902 across the season. Koskinen managed a .917 in fewer starts.
Koskinen has never played in the NHL’s postseason, although he did play very well in the KHL’s playoffs, most recently putting up a .935 save percentage in 15 games with SKA St. Petersburg during the 2017-2018 season.
Smith played five games with the Calgary Flames in the 2018-19 playoffs, putting up a .917 save percentage, although his shutout in Game 1 of that series played a large role in that. He allowed six goals to the Colorado Avalanche in Game 3 and five goals in a critical Game 5.
Neither goalie inspires a lot of confidence, with Koskinen’s lack of experience and Smith having potentially cost his team a series. Heading into this series, if Crawford is healthy for the Blackhawks, Chicago has the early advantage in this category.
But Koskinen isn’t the only one who lacks experience, since most of the team has none or very little experience with playoff hockey.
Players who were on the team in 2016-17, Edmonton’s last playoff appearance, played 13 games. That group consists of 10 out of 31 players on the roster, including McDavid, Draisaiatl, Nugent-Hopkins, Klefbom and Nurse.
Others, like Smith and Neal, have gotten playoff experience on other teams. But there are young players like Yamamoto, Gaetan Haas, Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear and Josh Archibald who could factor in to the series but have either not experienced the playoffs or have very minimal experience (Archibald having just four games).
But 13 games isn’t a ton of experience either, especially since that was three years ago now. This is particularly evident against a team like the Blackhawks, whose core group of players has years of experience in the playoffs.
Matching up against Vegas
This season, the Golden Knights were 2-1-0 against the Oilers and now have a 6-4-1 all-time record against Edmonton. One of Marc-Andre Fleury’s five shutouts in 2019-20 came against the Oilers in the team’s 3-0 win in late February, and Edmonton scored six goals in the other two games, one of which was a sloppy 4-2 loss for Vegas in November, the other a 3-2 overtime win at the end of the season.
That game, the Knights’ final game of the regular season, proved to be critical, as Vegas’ 3-2 overtime win ended up being the difference between competing in the round robin and ending up in a qualifying series against Chicago (McDavid was a late scratch in the contest).
Vegas’ penalty kill was 27th in the league in 2019-20 with a 76.6 percent success rate, so Edmonton’s elite power play could be a factor in a potential playoff series, although the Oilers scored just one power-play goal against Vegas in the regular season.
Vegas’ top six would match up well against Edmonton’s, and Vegas would have the edge in experience as well, with many players from the 2018 trip to the Stanley Cup Final still on the roster, and with others, like Mark Stone, Alec Martinez and Max Pacioretty, who have since joined but bring with them playoff experience from other teams.
Nugent-Hopkins — McDavid — Kassian
Ennis — Draisaitl — Yamamoto
Athanasiou — Haas — Archibald
Neal — Jujhar Khaira — Chiasson
Klefbom — Larsson
Nurse — Bear
Kris Russell — Matt Benning
The Chicago Blackhawks finished the season as the last team to make the qualifying round in the Western Conference, ranking 23rd out of 24 teams in the playoff format and serving as the No. 12 seed in the west. They ended the season with a 32-30-8 record for just a .514 point percentage, which was dead last in the Central Division.
After going nine straight seasons making the playoffs, the Blackhawks haven’t made it back in two years, which means young players like Alex DeBrincat and other more recent acquisitions like Connor Murphy, have yet to taste playoff hockey.
The Blackhawks are led by Patrick Kane, who scored 33 goals and 51 assists for 84 points in 70 games, and by Jonathan Toews, who scored 18 goals (a career low) and 42 assists for 60 points. Both players have Conn Smythe Trophies under their belts as the most valuable player in the playoffs, as does defenseman Duncan Keith.
The Blackhawks had two real MVPs this season, however, and one of them is now on the bench in Vegas (Lehner). Crawford, if indeed he is taking control of the Blackhawks’ net against the Oilers, will have his work cut out for him playing behind one of the league’s lesser defenses, although they did much to stop McDavid and Draisaitl in contests during the 2019-20 regular season.
The Blackhawks are also looking to get top defensemen Murphy and Calvin de Haan back from injury and team departures.
Given its record at the time, Chicago was a major seller at the deadline, giving up Lehner and defenseman Erik Gustafsson to Pacific Division teams. The only major addition was the waiver claim of Nick Seeler. Instead, the team promoted players from within the system, and Chicago will on rely on young players like Adam Boqvist, Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik and Alex Nylander in this series and moving forward.
Kubalik was nominated for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year after leading all rookies in goals with 30; he finished the season with 46 points in 68 games.
The Blackhawks did bring in players in the offseason that contributed to the team, including former Golden Knight Ryan Carpenter, who played the most minutes among Blackhawks forwards on the penalty kill. Olli Maatta, Nylander and de Haan also came over in the offseason and can contribute as members of the 31-man roster.
Crawford has been among the best playoff goaltenders over the course of his career, as not many active goaltenders can claim to have won two Cups. Both of the others who can — Jonathan Quick and Matt Murray — are either not playing in the postseason or could lose their net (Tristan Jarry poses a significant threat to Murray’s starting role in Pittsburgh).
When Crawford and Lehner were a goaltending duo, they were among the league’s best, though since the beginning of 2020, Crawford firmly earned the starting role. His .928 save percentage ranked 11th in the league and fourth among those with more than 1000 minutes played.
Crawford was an X-factor in both of the Blackhawks’ last two Stanley Cup wins in 2013 and 2015, and he was one of their best players in both the 2016 and 2017 playoffs, the last two times the team appeared in the postseason. He’ll play a significant role in this series as well.
Just in case Crawford doesn’t start or doesn’t play every game, it’s worth mentioning that Malcolm Subban is his backup after Vegas and Chicago swapped goalies back at the trade deadline.
Again, with a group of players headed by Kane, Toews and Keith, the Blackhawks have players with as many as three Stanley Cup wins on their roster, a feat no one else in the West can claim (only one other team in the Western Conference round robin can claim even one), and have the leadership and know-how to compete in the playoffs.
The team also has players like Brandon Saad, Maatta and Crawford with two rings, as well as someone like de Haan, who has made it to the second round twice in the past and has 28 games of experience under his belt, which is more than most of the Oilers.
Experience firmly favors the Blackhawks here, although it would in most series.
The Blackhawks had the 28th-ranked power play this season, with just a 15.2 percent success rate. They also were 28th in the league in goals per 60 (5.31), less than half of the pace Edmonton maintained.
Just three players on the Blackhawks’ roster had double-digit points on the power play this season: Kane, who had 15 assists, DeBrincat, who led the team with 10 goals, and Keith.
The Blackhawks need more players to step up on the man advantage if they’re going to be successful in this matchup. Right now, the Edmonton penalty kill could have an easy series.
The Blackhawks had statistically one of, if not the worst defenses in the NHL this season. At even strength, they were dead last in the NHL in shots against per 60, expected goals against per 60 and high-danger chances against per 60. They were near the bottom in Corsi against per 60 and high-danger goals against per 60. Their highest rank was 24th in goals against per 60, mainly because of their excellent goaltending.
A lot of that is because the Blackhawks’ two highest-paid defensemen, Keith and Brent Seabrook (not with the team for the postseason), being over the age of 35 (Seabrook turned 35 on April 20). It didn’t do Chicago any favors that de Haan, a major offseason acquisition, played just 29 games in the regular season, and neither did the fact that Murphy, the team’s best defenseman, missed the beginning of the year.
Ironically, this trend didn’t translate in games against the Oilers in the regular season, as the Blackhawks held McDavid to zero points in two games (though Draisaitl scored seven points in three games). However, Chicago was one of just four teams to keep McDavid off the scoresheet, which doesn’t line up with how the team played for most of the year. Altogether, the Oilers scored nine goals against the Blackhawks, though five of them came in one game.
Matching up against Vegas
Historically, the Golden Knights have had the Blackhawks’ number, taking every game against Chicago in the first two years of Vegas’ existence. This season marked the first time Vegas lost to Chicago, as the teams split the season series thanks to a 5-3 win for the Blackhawks in which Dylan Strome had three points and Crawford stopped 39 of 42 shots.
Vegas almost and probably should have lost one of the other two meetings against Chicago after scoring a late goal and winning in a shootout despite getting outplayed for most of the night.
The third contest between these two teams was a 5-1 win for Vegas in which Fleury, in his first game back in the lineup after his father’s passing, pitched a shutout until the final minute of regulation.
Vegas would be more evenly matched against Chicago with regards to experience, especially having more experience more recently. Plus, Vegas’ defense is superior to Chicago’s.
However, the goaltending matchup would be intriguing, especially against a netminder like Crawford, who seems to find another gear in the postseason. Also, if it were to happen, it would be interesting to see Lehner and Subban face their former teams.
But no matter what, the Knights’ offense would thrive, having scored 10 goals in three games against the Blackhawks this season. That could end up being the story of the series.
DeBrincat — Toews — Saad
Nylander — Strome — Kane
Kubalik — Dach — Drake Caggiula
Carpenter — David Kampf — Matthew Highmore
Keith — Boqvist
de Haan — Murphy
Maatta — Slater Koekkoek
Edmonton vs. Chicago schedule
Game 1: Saturday Aug. 1 at 12:00 p.m.
Game 2: Monday Aug. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday Aug. 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 4: Friday Aug. 7
Game 5: Saturday Aug. 8
Prediction time: Who wins this series?