The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups.
(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks – TV schedule, start times, channels
Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 3 p.m. ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 3: Blackhawks vs. Oilers, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks*, TBD
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD
Oilers – Blackhawks preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series
Will Corey Crawford be ready?
Crawford looked sharp during Wednesday’s exhibition win over the Blues. He stopped all 11 shots he faced in 30 minutes of action after only three practices following his recovery from COVID-19. If he can’t go in Game 1, Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia are Jeremy Colliton’s options.
Hampered by injuries over the last few seasons, Crawford had a solid 2019-20 with a .926 even strength save percentage during the regular season — good enough for sixth in the NHL among goalies with 30 appearances. It’s an important week for him to get up to speed and be ready for Saturday. There’s little room for error in the best-of-five series.
What kind of help will Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl receive?
The productive duo have been incredibly important to the Oilers’ standing in the Western Conference. Their 77 combined goals this season was 35% of the team’s total output. It doesn’t begin with this season, of course. McDavid and Draisaitl have scored an NHL-best 197 goals since 2016-17 — 21.3% of the team’s entire goal total.
We know what they’re capable of doing. Beyond Connor and Leon is where the issue could halt the Oilers’ progress. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was next on the team with 22 goals, followed by James Neal‘s 19. But you need some context around Neal’s total. Remember when he scored eight times in their first six games? He’s goalless now since his New Year’s Eve hat trick, a span of 13 games before the pause.
An X-factor up front for Edmonton might Andreas Athanasiou, who was acquired at the February trade deadline. He was a 30-goal scorer last season, but struggled earlier this year in Detroit. The speedy winger played only nine games with the Oilers after the deal, but an extended summer camp could serve the pending restricted free agent well.
Who’s out? Who might return?
Blackhawks: Brent Seabrook will not play this summer after shoulder and hip surgeries. Connor Murphy dealt with a groin injury but returned for Tuesday’s skate. Calvin de Haan missed time during Phase 3 due to a family emergency but did travel with the team to Edmonton.
Oilers: Mike Green was one of the handful of NHL players to opt out of the Return to Play. Riley Sheahan didn’t finish the team’s scrimmage over the weekend and sat out Tuesday’s game against the Flames. He’s expected to be ready for Game 1. After dealing with a COVID-19 diagnosis, Caleb Jones returned but missed the exhibition game after being “nicked up,” according to head coach Dave Tippett.
Slowing Edmonton’s power play
A 29.5% success rate with the extra man from the Oilers’ power play was the best the NHL has seen since the 1978-79 Islanders went over 30%. It wasn’t so much volume that led to all those man advantage goals as it was the quality of their chances.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Oilers were 21st in Corsi attempts for (530) and 22nd in total power play shots for (291). Other than scoring, what the unit did successfully was creating scoring chances per 60 minutes (58.77, first overall) and getting high-danger chances (23.8 per 60 minutes, fifth overall).
Chicago’s penalty was solid, ranking ninth in the NHL at 82.1%. They’ll be put to the test when down a man.
The Oilers’ goalies split their exhibition game against Calgary. Both played well with Smith allowing the lone goal after 20 shots faced. So who gets the Game 1 start? They shared the workload during the regular season and there was no hot hand to turn to with Smith being the only one to get three straight starts in the final month.
Koskinen has the edge of even strength save percentage .917 to .902 and had the fourth-best shorthanded save percentage at .901 (Smith was tied for first with .918). Tippett is familiar with Smith’s experience having coached him in two previous stops with the Stars and Coyotes.
Smith has the edge in rebound control and puck handling abilities. If you want to win the possession battle, having a goaltender who can perform well in those two category is a good start.