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Photo Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Hockey Talk… One Month to Go?

We are one month away from NHL training camps opening — potentially. The NHL has yet to officially announce when training camps will open, but July 10th is a day that has been mentioned often, so let’s go with it. If the league opens up a few days before or later than July 10th, that is fine, but if the league wants to have games in early August and a three week-training camp, then July 10th makes a lot of sense.

Plus it is one month from today and who doesn’t love a countdown for a possible return-to-play date?

With that in mind, let’s look at the qualifying matchup between the Edmonton Oilers and the Chicago Blackhawks.

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We’ve never had to break down a series where the 12th team in a conference was in the playoffs, which makes this matchup unique. The Blackhawks had 72 points in 70 games and were on pace for 84 points, while the Oilers had 83 points in 71 games and were on pace for 96. Of course on pace is just a projection, and often not an accurate depiction of how a team was playing.

If you look at previous Stanley Cup winners, they were playing well over the final 30 games of the regular season.

The St. Louis Blues had the second best points% over their final 30 games last season at .750.
The 2018 Washington Capitals were seventh best at .643P%.
The 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins were fifth at .636P%.
The 2016 Penguins were second at .711P%.

There are exceptions, like the 2014 LA Kings who were 16th in the NHL at .551P%.

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We haven’t seen NHL hockey in almost three months, and many might have forgotten which teams were playing well.

The Oilers had the third best record in the west and sixth best overall. They also were tied for the fourth best GF% at 55.1%.

The top-six overall were as follows in their previous 30 games.

TEAM        PTS        GF-GA        GF%
BOS           43         91-70          56.5
TB              42        100-70         58.8
COL           42         92-72          56.1
PHI            40        107-84          56
VEG           40        102-87         53.9
EDM          39        107-87         55.1

Edmonton was tied with Philly for most goals/game in the NHL at 3.56 and Edmonton was 13th in goals against/game at 2.90. The Oilers had two scoring lines and their depth players were contributing as well.

Here is how the 12 Western Conference teams played over their final 30 games of the regular season.

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TEAM        PTS      PTS%    GF-GA        GF%
COL           42       .700       92-72         56.1
VEG           40       .667      102-87        53.9
EDM          39       .650      107-87        55.1
STL            36       .600       95-86         52.4
DAL           36       .600       77-77          50
NSH          36        .600      79-85         48.1
MIN          34        .567       95-88        51.9
VAN          34        .567      100-98       50.5
CGY           34        .567      98-97        50.2
WPG          33        .550      87-76        53.3
CHI            32        .533      97-89        52.1
ARI            28        .467      82-82         50

Edmonton’s +20 GF-GA was tied with Colorado for tops in the west.

If the Oilers can play close to how they had in their final two and a half months of the season, they are an obvious favourite over the Blackhawks. Of course being a favourite means very little once the games start, but based on their play they are a more skilled team than the Blackhawks. They have a better offence, their blueline is better, they have an advantage on special teams, both PP and PK, and their head coach is more proven. The one area the Hawks have the advantage is in goal.

The Hawks have five players who have won the Stanley Cup — Patrick Kane, Jonathon Toews, Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad and Corey Crawford. They have more experience, but the Hawks haven’t won a playoff series since they won the Cup in 2015. How much does that experience carry over five years later? I have no clue. In certain situations it will help, no question, but I don’t see it as a massive advantage.

BE DISCIPLINED…

Oct 14, 2019; Chicago, IL, USA; Edmonton Oilers left wing James Neal (18) looks to pass the puck against Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews (19) during the first period at United Center.

I’ve read numerous articles stating the Hawks need to stay out of the box, to try and limit the opportunities of the Oilers deadly powerplay. It is a fair point, but the Oilers didn’t get a lot of powerplays all season. How much more disciplined can the Hawks be realistically?

The Oilers ranked 22nd in powerplay chances/game at 2.81. Their PP succeed due to quality not quantity. And the main advantage they have is the skill and smarts of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Dave Tippett told me what makes their PP so successful is the ability of those three to attack in different ways. He admitted it isn’t like the coaches are coming up with great systems, instead it is the vision and adaptability of those three to find different ways to attack you.

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Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson wrote an article in late May about the five best goal-scorers in the game. 

“The nightmare-inducing guys, those are the ones who — how do I put this? — just find a way to put the puck in the net when I thought, absolutely, that I had that corner covered.

Those guys are the ones you can’t prepare for, really.

Those guys are — without a doubt — the best goal scorers in the world.

And I’m going to give you the five that I hate playing against the most, in no particular order.”

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He included Draisaitl and McDavid as a duo because, “I can’t play against the Oilers without worrying about both — so I can’t write about just one,” he wrote.

This explained how their chemistry and creativity is what makes them so dangerous.

“I remember a play from a regular season game against them in 2017, too. I can’t exactly pinpoint what game it was in, but I had never seen anything like it. Basically, Draisaitl, who was facing the net, had his back to McDavid, and somehow, McDavid fired a pass to the back of Draisaitl’s stick. Then Draisatl just puts it on his forehand and creates a great chance. It didn’t turn into a goal, but it was truly one of the weirdest things I’ve seen on the ice. It was some magic trick type stuff.

“After the whistle I was sort of looking around for anyone to make eye contact with and acknowledge what they had just done.

“You’ll see a lot of guys doing that when they’re playing against them.”

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McDavid and Draisaitl have mastered that play. I’ve yet to see others try it. Draisaitl has his back to McDavid, but he knows a pass is coming, and then he has the skill and quickness to receive the pass on his backhand, and then quickly transition to shoot it on his forehand. How do you defend that?

The Blackhawks were fairly disciplined in the regular season, averaging 2.96 penalty kills/game which was 13th best in the NHL. How much more disciplined can they be?

I think some people underestimate how good McDavid, Draisaitl and RNH have become on the PP. Most of the great PPs over the year built chemistry and continuity on top of having elite skill, and that is what Edmonton has now.

WHAT ABOUT THE LAYOFF?

It is a unique situation, no doubt, but if you look at the start of this season, after the Oilers had six months between regular season games, the powerplay did not struggle out of the gate.

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The Oilers scored 10 powerplay goals in their first seven games, clicking along at 45.4%. They went 0-for-2 in their season opener, but then scored a PP goal in each of their next six games and went 10-for-20. I don’t see rust being an issue for the powerplay.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks PP, despite having Kane, was rather ineffective, clicking along at 15.2%, which was 27th in the league. They were 15.4% in their final 30 games.

Could their PP get hot? Anything is possible, but over the past three seasons, their PP sits 27th at 17.1%. It is has struggled for three seasons.

Hopefully, we are a month away from training camps opening, and we can see how teams look, but the Oilers were one of the best teams in the NHL over the final 30 games of the regular season and with Mike Green healthy, and their star players rested, I see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to dominate the Blackhawks. If the Oilers lose, it will because they didn’t play well, not because they don’t have the skillset of the Blackhawks.

RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR