It’s finally happening. After 142 days without hockey, the NHL and NHLPA have ratified a four-year CBA extension and Return to Play Plan.
We also know the Blackhawks’ qualifying round schedule against the Oilers. Game one will be on Saturday, August 1st, with the next three games every other day and a possible game five on August 8th.
It’s great the Blackhawks have been granted a chance, but do they even have a shot? To see which team has the advantage in the series, the game must be broken down into three phrases (my new favorite word); even strength, special teams, and goaltending. Here is how the two teams stack up.
This season, the Blackhawks scored the same amount of goals as they surrendered at 5v5; 147. If it weren’t for the stellar goaltending of Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner, the goals against could have been much higher. Even though the Blackhawks could find the back of the net at a decent rate of 2.61 goals per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, they gave up way too many chances defensively.
The Blackhawks averaged 34.82 shots against per 60 minutes of 5v5 play this season, the most in the NHL. It is not surprising they also gave up the most scoring chances in the league, with an average of 30.22 per 60 minutes. These numbers are not good, and when the opposing team has the top two scorers in the league, it can become disastrous.
The Oilers were nothing special at 5v5 this season, which is surprising given the numbers Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid put up. The team averaged 2.44 goals at 5v5 per 60 minutes while surrendering 2.72 goals against. They also had the seventh-worst team save percentage of 91.23% (compared to 92.51% for the Blackhawks).
If the Blackhawks can keep the games at 5v5, they give themselves a much better chance of winning the series.
Below is a chart that compares offensive output this season at 5v5 play between the Blackhawks and Oilers. The Blackhawks generate more offense than the Oilers, averaging exactly two more shots and two more chances per 60 minutes of 5v5 play, but score only .17 more goals.
The chart below compares the Blackhawks and Oilers in terms of defense during 5v5 play per 60 minutes. This is where every team in the league has an advantage over the Blackhawks. These defensive inefficiencies can not be fixed overnight, or during a three-month quarantine period for that matter, so the Blackhawks will need to rely heavily on Corey Crawford to make timely saves like he has done all season.
Even though the Blackhawks do give up a lot defensively, it doesn’t necessarily translate to goals against. The Blackhawks have a slight advantage at 5v5 due to the Oilers’ inability to generate scoring chances, while the Blackhawks consistently put up 30 shots a game.
Special teams — power play and penalty kill — could be the undoing of the Blackhawks against the Oilers. At 5v5 the teams are pretty evenly matched with the Blackhawks having a slight edge, but the Oilers have a major advantage on the power play.
The Oilers had the best power play in the league this season with a 29.5% success rate. The clip below is an example of how dynamic the tandem of McDavid and Draisaitl can be on the man-advantage.
And it’s not just the Oilers’ power play that is dangerous, their penalty kill was also the second-best in the league with a success rate of 84.4%.
One would think with a player like Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks would have a dominant power play, but that is far from reality. Touting a 15.2% conversion rate, the Blackhawks’ player play was the fourth-worst in the league. The team scored just 33 goals on the man-advantage compared to the Oilers’ league-leading 59 goals.
If there can be any positive taken from the Blackhawks’ special teams units, it’s that their penalty kill continued to improve throughout the season and was the ninth-best in the league at the time of the pause.
The Oilers have the advantage in special teams by a long shot. If the Blackhawks take too many penalties, they will lose the series.
While the Oilers have a clear advantage in special teams, the same goes for the Blackhawks’ goaltending (well, Corey Crawford specifically).
With the departure of Robin Lehner at the trade deadline, the Blackhawks have to rely on Corey Crawford, and that is totally fine.
In 39 starts this season, Crawford finished with a record of 16-20-3. It is not impressive by any means, but considering the Blackhawks were one of the worst teams defensively, it isn’t as bad as it seems.
Crawford was also playing some of his best hockey of the season before the pause. In his final ten starts, Crawford went 6-4 with a 2.41 GAA and a .930 SV%.
The Oilers used two goalies throughout this season as Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen split time as the team’s starting netminder. Smith should start the series for the Oilers, but the Blackhawks should expect to see both goalies at some point.
With nearly identical records, Koskinen does have the edge with a 2.75 GAA and a .917 SV%, but he has yet to appear in a postseason game.
Mike Smith does elevate his game in the postseason, with a career 2.17 GAA and a .938 SV% in 22 postseason starts, but with the down season he is having it’s hard to imagine his play will be any better when the postseason starts.
And the Winner is…
If, and only if, the Blackhawks can score at least three goals a game at 5v5 and not take any bad penalties limiting McDavid and Draisaitl’s time on the man-advantage, the Blackhawks can win this series.