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Photo Credit: © Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

NHL First Round Playoff Preview: Edmonton Oilers vs. San Jose Sharks

This is part of a playoff preview series based at NHLNumbers.com

Here it is. The Edmonton Oilers are in the playoffs. Connor McDavid will get his first opportunity to show the hockey world that he is, in fact, the best player around when the games matter most. The first test will be the San Jose Sharks. These are two teams on opposite sides of the spectrum. The Sharks are old and tired, and this is probably their final shot at winning the Cup with this group, while Edmonton is just on the cusp of something great. It’s a passing of the torch in the Pacific Division. But is San Jose ready to give it up? Or will Edmonton have to wait another year?

Season Series

The Oilers and Sharks met five times this season, with San Jose winning the first two games and Edmonton winning the final three.

They played three times within the span of just one month back in late December and early January. The Sharks won the first meeting in San Jose on Dec. 23 in overtime, and deserved the win, outshooting Edmonton heavily 31-18. The next meeting was played in Edmonton on Jan. 10, with the Oilers dictating play, outshooting San Jose 36-28, but losing 5-3. They played again in San Jose a couple of weeks later, coming out with a 4-1 win despite being outshot. 

But I think in the context of this series, the two more recent matchups are more relevant for predicting the way this series is going to go. The Oilers have gelled as a team down the stretch, with their secondary scoring coming through behind the McDavid-Draisaitl pair, and their defence locking down in front of Cam Talbot. On the other hand, the Sharks seem to have faded, which isn’t surprising for a team who went on a deep playoff run that features a core of players on the wrong side of 30. 

In their final two meetings, Edmonton won in two different ways. The first came on March 30, in which they were heavily outshot, but Cam Talbot stood on his head and Connor McDavid played like an MVP, scoring a beautiful shorthanded goal. The second, on April 6, Edmonton manhandled the Sharks completely, winning 4-2. Milan Lucic scored natural hat trick, dragging the San Jose defencemen around the ice at will. Everyone was clicking that game, as San Jose reached what appeared to be their peak of injury and exhaustion fatigue. 

So what we have overall is a season series win 3-1-1 for Edmonton. The Sharks outplayed the Oilers in three of them, while the Oilers dominated two. It was a tight season series, and it’ll be a tight playoff series too. 

What do the numbers say? 

San Jose: 53.0 5v5 GF%, 51.5 5v5 CF%, 52.0 5v5 FF%, 8.9 SH%, 91.2 SV%, 16.7 PP%, 80.6 PK%

Edmonton: 54.3 5v5 GF%, 49.9 5v5 CF%, 50.9 5v5 FF% 9.5 SH%, 91.5 SV%, 22.8 PP%, 80.7 PK%

When looking at the numbers, these seem to be two very evenly matched teams. San Jose boasts better shot attempt numbers at even strength. Both teams are neck-and-neck when it comes to stopping shots against, whether it’s shot attempts, unblocked shot attempts, or actual shots on goal at even strength, but San Jose pulls ahead when it comes to getting shots of their own. Despite that, the Oilers score goals at a higher pace at evens than the Sharks do, which seems to come down to Edmonton shooting at a higher percentage. 

Is that because they’re generating better quality scoring chances, have stronger shot selection, or have more good shooters? Or is it simply a luck thing?  It’s hard to say. Regardless, at even strength, these two teams are fairly evenly matched. Where Edmonton pulls ahead, though, is on the power play. This is odd, because in the past, the Sharks, featuring Joe Thornton, Brent Burns, and Joe Pavelski, have been lethal on the man advantage. This season they’ve been well below league average, while the Oilers have been excellent. Edmonton scores on 22.8 per cent of its power plays, meaning if this series is cut down the middle at even strength like the numbers suggest, it could be the place where the Oilers find their advantage and pull ahead. 

Both San Jose and Edmonton are constructed in a similar way, in that their offence is kind of built around one player who really drives play. For the Sharks, it’s Brent Burns. When he’s on the ice, the Sharks generate significantly more shot attempts when he’s on the ice than they do when he isn’t. Then, of course, for the Oilers, it’s Connor McDavid. The Sharks use Brenden Dillon and Marc-Edouard Vlasic to shut opponents down, and they’ll likely be tasked with having to deal with McDavid and his line’s potent attack. 

Edmonton doesn’t have an elite shut down pair like the Sharks do, meaning they’ll have to stop Burns and Co. by committee, but what they do have is depth up and down the roster. If McDavid is somehow, someway stopped by the Sharks’ defence, Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, and Milan Lucic will be given an excellent opportunity to capitalize on some easy minutes, whereas the Sharks don’t have much in terms of secondary scoring behind their major players, especially with Thornton and Logan Couture having questionable status due to injures. 

Why you should cheer for The Oilers

If you’re an Oilers fan, the reasoning is simple enough. But if you’re a casual observer, unsure of who to cheer for, you should find this Edmonton team quite endearing. Connor McDavid is a magnificent player to watch, and in his first playoff appearance in the NHL, you can realistically expect for him to reach another level of play. He seems like a quiet and humble guy, but you can just tell that deep down there’s a ridiculous level of competitiveness in him that drives him to be not just very good, but the best. It’ll be a treat to watch. Besides, it’s best to enjoy the Oilers as a novelty now, because they’re going to be a very good team for a very long time, and if you’re a fan of another team, it won’t be fun. 

Why you should cheer for The Sharks

The Sharks certainly aren’t a team to dislike either. Last season, the perennial-chokers went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time ever, and came up just short, losing in six to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The team has been fun to watch for many years, but they’re certainly getting up there in age. This might realistically be Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau’s final chance to win it all with San Jose. These are likeable players, and it would be great to see them lift the Stanley Cup at the end of storied, Hall of Fame careers. 

Schedule

Prediction

Edmonton wins in six games. This is a passing of the torch in the Pacific Division. The Sharks have been a very good team for a very long time, but age is catching up to them. The Oilers are young, big, strong, physical, skilled, and boast more depth than many give them credit for. The Sharks are going to have a hell of a time stopping Connor McDavid alone, and without all of their guns firing at full strength, the Oilers have the clear advantage in the series. 

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