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Photo Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Game Notes: Clinch v. Canucks

The Edmonton Oilers are going to the playoffs, but they need one point tonight to make it official. Unlike in baseball, where teams have a massive celebration when they clinch a playoff spot, the NHL is much more subdued. You could argue baseball does it better, celebrating the very necessary first step on the road to a championship. If you don’t make the playoffs you have no chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup.

I doubt we’ll ever see NHL teams celebrating like MLB, but for an organization thin on playoff participation the past two decades, tonight presents an opportunity for the Oilers to at least fist pump and high five their teammates on clinching a playoffs spot.

— Edmonton is in the driver’s seat to finish second in the North and have home ice advantage in the opening round. They are five points up on Winnipeg and seven ahead of Montreal, and they have a game in hand on both. Edmonton only needs to go 3-3-1 in their final seven games to finish in second. It seems very likely Edmonton will host either the Jets or Canadiens in round one.

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— Winnipeg has lost six in a row. They lost three to Edmonton, twice to Toronto and blew a 3-1 lead in Montreal this past Friday. Right now Winnipeg seems like the easier matchup. They are banged up with Nikolaj Ehlers and Adam Lowry out of the lineup, although Lowry could return tonight, and they have the weakest defence corps of the four projected playoff teams. But, perception doesn’t always match reality. Maybe they will rediscover their game when the postseason begins.

Winnipeg plays in Ottawa tonight, in Calgary on Wednesday, then home to the Senators on Friday, before hosting Vancouver next Monday and Tuesday before finishing their season at home against the Maple Leafs on May 14th. Meanwhile Montreal plays Toronto three times, Ottawa once and finishes their season with two games against Edmonton next Monday and Wednesday. The Habs have the more difficult schedule, with five games against the top two teams.

— If the standings remain the same over the next two weeks, which seems the most likely outcome, then the Oilers and Jets will meet in the playoffs for the first time since 1990, while Toronto and Montreal will battle for the first time since 1979. Today, I like Edmonton’s chances against the Jets.

— After their lengthy layoff due to COVID, Vancouver had an initial surge of energy and emotion, winning three of four games, but since then they’ve lost four in a row and have been outscored 17-6. Even before the delay, the Canucks weren’t that good, so combine their overall talent level with the significant physical disadvantage of playing post-COVID, and this is a week the Oilers should dominate.

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They play the Canucks four times in six days. I suspect we will see Evan Bouchard play his first game in two months this week, and Dave Tippett said Mikko Koskinen will get more action. Will Koskinen start three or four of the remaining seven games?

— One positive for the Canucks limping to the finish line is it will improve their chances of having a high draft pick.

They are currently fourth from the bottom in points, which would give them an 8.5% chance to win. Remember that Seattle automatically has the third best (11.5%) odds in the lottery. Had Vancouver not had their season stopped, they might have finished 22nd or a few spots higher. They would have missed the playoffs, but been out of the top-10 in the draft (unless they won one of the two lotteries). Now it looks like they will have a much higher draft pick.

— I think Ryan McLeod is going to be a solid contributor in the future. His has many arrows pointing up, but he is also a rookie with four NHL games. Expecting him to be a difference maker in the playoffs might be a big ask. I like that Dave Tippett is playing him with offensive players to try and get him some offensive confidence, but I suspect he will be in the bottom six when the playoffs begin. Nothing wrong with that. He is a young player, and contributing in the NHL, especially in the playoffs, rarely happens instantly.

— Vancouver’s top-four scorers (Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes, Bo Horvat and JT Miller) have combined for 47 goals and 140 points. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have 53 goals and 158 points. Elias Pettersson has missed 19 games and has 21 points, but Vancouver’s offence has struggled all season. They are 27th in GA at 2.58/game. Prior to their COVID outbreak they were averaging 2.62 goals/game.

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Mike Smith will be the Oilers nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy, and he has a very good chance to become the first Oilers player to win the award. The trophy is awarded to the player who exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The winner doesn’t have to return from a serious injury or illness, although many winners have. Smith is sixth among starters (minimum 20 starts) with a .924Sv%, and he is 10th in GAA. He has been excellent and will get strong consideration for his commitment to improving his play at 39 years of age.

Darnell Nurse has 14 even strength goals and 15 overall. Only Paul Coffey had more EVG in Oilers history. Coffey had seasons with 30, 25, 23, 19 and 16 EVG. Nurse has 14 in 49 games, which prorates to 23. His goal scoring production has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. I don’t think anyone expected him to be third on the Oilers in goals and leading all NHL D-men in EVG goals and sitting second in total goals. Jacob Chychrun leads the league with 16.

— The Emery Edge award (NHL player with the highest +/-) was discontinued in 2008, but it is still tracked unofficially here.  Wayne Gretzky won it four times (1982, 1984, 1985 and 1987) as an Oiler, while Charlie Huddy won it in 1983. Draisaitl is currently tied for the league lead with Vegas defender Shea Theodore at +28. Nurse is tied for sixth at +26, while McDavid is tied for 16th at +22.

— At GF-GA only at 5×5 here are the league leaders:

Mikko Rantanen (45-19) and TJ Brodie (52-26) +26
Theodore (56-31) and Nathan Mackinnon (46-21) +25
Draisaitl (47-26) and Auston Matthews (49-28) +21.

— Another reason why I believe home ice advantage matters for the Oilers: McDavid is averaging 2.04 point/game (51 in 25 games) on home ice while scoring 1.50 points/game (36 in 24 games) on the road. He leads the NHL in home and road scoring but has had significantly more success at home this season.

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In his 400 games played, McDavid has played 200 on the road and 200 at home. He averaged 1.48 point/game at home and 1.30 points/game on the road. I wouldn’t discount the importance of home ice advantage in the playoffs.

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