The Edmonton Oilers have two of the best five players on the planet in their line-up, outstanding special teams and a coach with a knack of knowing who to play with whom. So, what’s going to stop them unless the roof at Rogers Place falls in? Not the Chicago Blackhawks in their best-of-five play-in series, that’s for sure. That’s a three-game sweep for me.
OK, I apologize for forcing the lame reference to the flooding at the rink during Thursday’s storm, but the rest stands. When the puck drops, I don’t see a way Chicago has an answer for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who’ve been so good playing apart the Oilers have scoring depth with the bump Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Draisaitl and Kailer Yamamoto have provided. Word at the rink is McDavid is flying and, as usual, will produce no matter who he plays with. Maybe Dave Tippett puts him between Zack Kassian and Andreas Athanasiou.
Then, there’s the special teams, which have been the Oilers bread-and-butter this season when they’ve occasionally struggled to get things done five-on-five. At 29.5 per cent, the power play is at a near-historic high for percentage. It’s best in the NHL. The penalty killing was ranked second at 84.4 per cent when COVID-19 forced the teams off the ice back in March. Both matter when goals get harder to come by in post-season.
When I look at the defensive group, I see enough quality and depth in Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson, Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear and Kris Russell and Matt Benning – with Caleb Jones and William Lagesson in the mix – that I don’t fear for the amount of work and rubber Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen will face. At least not against the Blackhawks, who were 11 points back of the Oilers when played was halted.
One of the most positive things for me is that McDavid and Draisaitl haven’t missed a beat playing apart, giving Tippett two legit scoring lines. Playing the wing alongside Draisaitl seems to have provided RNH with a jolt. With 22-39-61 in 65 games he was taking a run at his best season points-wise. Yamamoto, who had 11-15-26 in 27 games when play stopped, has been a revelation. On the back end, Bear has continued to develop.
“Our young core players are starting to mature,” Tippett told Mark Spector of Sportsnet. “Both Leon and Connor recognize the responsibility they have to help them come in and, not just become players on our team but strong contributors on our team . . . Yamo and Leon have had that (chemistry) right since Day 1. Leon, if he’s giddy about any player on our team it’s Yamo. He likes to play on Yamo and Yamo likes to play with him.”
Draisaitl, of course, has been out of this world after what was his coming out party last season. He’s already claimed the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring leader with 43-67-110 and, for my money, he has to be favored to sweep the Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award for most outstanding player as voted on by the NHLPA rank and file. The Hart finalists will be announced on Tuesday.
As for McDavid, he managed to finish as runner-up to Draisaitl with 97 points despite playing just 64 games – those coming after an off-season spent rehabbing that torn knee ligament. How good will he look after the equivalent of a full off-season to re-energize and get in even better shape? He’s going to look like he’s been shot out of a cannon when the puck drops in an exhibition game against the Calgary Flames July 28. The Chicago series starts Aug. 1.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I don’t think it matters if Corey Crawford, deemed unfit to play right now, is in the blue paint for Chicago or not. With him, maybe the Blackhawks win a game, but I doubt it. Without him, it’s in the books in three. I just don’t see one match-up the Blackhawks win, especially with the quickness GM Ken Holland added at the trade deadline with Athanasiou and Tyler Ennis.
The question for me, and I’m guessing for many of you, isn’t how the Oilers will fare against the Blackhawks in the play-in, but how deep they might go after the final 16 is decided. The Oilers haven’t managed to go more than two rounds since the unlikely roll of 2006. If we can keep the COVID-19 numbers in check and the roof on the new barn, we’ll get the answer soon enough.