The redesigned National Hockey League playoff format is official, and assuming everything goes as planned, we’re getting closer to hockey again.
The new playoff format will include a total of 24 teams and will open with a qualifying round of 16 teams. The first of the top five streaks gives new life to eight teams that were below the initial playoff line and is expected to create waves of excitement for sports fans.
Over the next few weeks, we will preview each series of qualifying rounds in detail. An archive of previews can be found here:
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins v. (12) Montreal Canadiens
(6) Carolina Hurricanes against (11) New York Rangers
(7) New York Islanders against (10) Florida Panthers
(8) Toronto Maple Leafs v. (9) Columbus Blue Jackets
(6) Nashville Predators against (11) Arizona Coyotes
(8) Flames of Calgary v. (9) Winnipeg Jets
Today, we’re considering a third game in the Western Conference, which features the fifth-seeded Edmonton Oilers against the No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks.
Regular season performance
When we talk about teams in the upper echelon of the NHL standings – the teams that were foolproof bets to make the playoffs when the regular season ended – we usually see a common theme of strength play equal and high-end goalkeepers. But for each rule, there is an exception, and that certainly applies to the 2019-2020 Edmonton Oilers.
The Oilers were arguably the most fascinating team in the league this year. Between Connor McDavid (97 points in 64 games) and Leon Draisaitl (110 points in 71 games), the Oilers are home to two of the most electric offensive weapons in the league. Draisaitl is a certain Hart finalist and perhaps the favorite to win it, depending on what you think of the New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin and his contributions to a team that was more likely than not to miss the playoffs.
On the power play, the McDavid-Draisaitl combination was historic – perhaps a predictable development given the remarkable feats of the two players. The first unit alone scored an average of 12.9 goals per 60 minutes and the Edmonton power play averaged 10.7 goals per 60 minutes during the season. In the modern era (2007-20), only the 2018-2019 Tampa Bay Lightning (11.5 goals per 60 minutes) was more productive.
Their penalty was just as fantastic – the goalkeeper duo Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith the tandem held opponents at only 9.3%, the lowest rate in the league.
So, what has kept Edmonton this season? Defense, defense, defense – especially at equal strength. Teams scored on the Edmonton front line just as effectively; Draisaitl finished the season seven on equal power positive, McDavid only five. More than half of the list was underwater, with deep players like Josh Archibald (-16), Jujhar Khaira (-19), and Riley Sheahan (-20) crashed most of the year. Part of that is the nature of playing such a tempo style of hockey, but the reality is that their defensive shortcomings likely cost them the Divisional Race against Vegas.
But if the Edmonton defense was lackluster, there is no proper word to apply to Chicago. The Blackhawks have been terribly bad on the defensive side of the ice for a few years now, with their veteran core showing real signs of aging and deterioration.
The Blackhawks finished last of expected goals against equal strength, 29th in all situations. Without Robin lehner and Corey Crawford bail out this team regularly during the regular season, they would have been comfortably in the lottery draws.
Just look at where the shots came from when Chicago was defending the game:
Although this team remains a defensive disaster, they are still effective enough to attack – Patrick Kane (84 points in 70 games) picked up where it left off last season, and players like Dominik Kubalik and Alex DeBrincat have become very capable secondary markers.
In summary: don’t expect the defense to be good in this series. The offensive armament is too impressive for both sides, and the game in the defensive zone is, well, the reverse.
Overview of the skater (objectives greater than the replacement)
Two names I want to draw attention to: Chicago’s Jonathan Toews and from Edmonton Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Toews has long been regarded as one of the best two-way attackers in the league, but in recent times he has lost part of the skill of his supporting cast and the numbers have cratered during the process. If you look at the goal spreads with Toews on the ice for Chicago over the years, you can see a downward trend:
Putting all of that on Toews would be completely unfair – he was 10 years old in the process and had wingers like Marian Hossa on his hip and defenders like Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in their prime game numbers. Anyway, it’s fairly difficult to win games on a regular basis when you lose goals, and the expected goal numbers only point out that these are a skater problem, not a goalkeeper.
But at the end of the day, everything revolves around net objectives. If you’re going to fight defensively, you’d better complete it offensively. The Blackhawks did just that with Toews on the ice, scoring 3.8 goals per 60 minutes of equal force this year. Head coach Jeremy Colliton put out his best offensive weapons – the aforementioned Kubalik and Kane, as well as the winger Brandon saad – on Toews hip, and it paid dividends. It was a fairly unusual season for Toews in that sense, but one that helped Chicago stay afloat in the standings.
Speaking of good performances, it would be careless not to mention Nugent-Hopkins. Perhaps the most important development for the Oilers this season has been the decision of new head coach Dave Tippett to blend him into a larger attacking role, armed with Draisaitl and a very intriguing second-year pro in Kailer Yamamoto.
In the 25 games we saw in this group, the trio beat their opponents 28-8 (+20). And although Draisaitl receives most praise for its finishing work, it should be kept in mind that Nugent-Hopkins was an extremely capable eraser in neutral and defensive areas – the type of defensive gum Draisaitl probably still needs to this stage of his career.
Goalkeeper overview (goals recorded above average)
Lehner (91.8% save rate) was sent to the Vegas Golden Knights as part of a forward agreement, which gave the team a second-round pick. At the time, the move was obvious: the chances of the Chicago playoffs were endless, Crawford played well enough to keep the Chicago net for the rest of the regular season, and Lehner (one of the best goalkeepers in any the NHL in recent seasons) was a very valuable commodity.
With zero competition and a solid Crawford season, the decision by Colliton’s goalkeeper is fairly easy. But it would have been interesting to see if Colliton would have gone with the Swede if he was still on the list.
Edmonton has an equally easy decision, but for different reasons. Koskinen dominated Smith during the season; it could be argued that the Smith gambit may have cost the Oilers first place in the divisional race, with a save percentage of 90.2 (comfortably below league averages) in 39 games.
Even adjustments to the quality of the shot don’t help Smith’s cause. Calculations suggest that the teams scored approximately seven more goals on Smith than they should have based on locations, angles and distances from shots. Compare that to Koskinen, who had more than five goals above expectations against a similar shooting profile. Smith may be the veteran presence, but that presence belongs to the bench for this streak.
Barring injury or a radical coaching decision, we should expect Crawford against Koskinen here.
You can watch some of the other play-in teams and see how the Blackhawks can make an upset. Not here. Edmonton is too fast, too clever and too dangerous offensively for such a porous Chicago team.
Assuming the Oilers make the right decision by starting Koskinen on Smith, I’m not giving the Blackhawks much luck unless Crawford – who is certainly capable – is going into a five-game game.
The second round will be very risky for the Oilers, according to their opponent. But they should be sailing here. The choice is Edmonton in four.
Data via Natural Stat Trick, HockeyViz, Evolving Hockey, NHL.com