Here's how the Blackhawks can stun the hockey world
Oilers in three. Or four. Or five.
Those figure to be the predictions by many pundits who weigh in on the Blackhawks' best-of-five series against Edmonton, which begins Saturday in Edmonton at 2 p.m.
And while there's no doubt that the talented, speedy, dangerous Oilers should be favored to eliminate the Hawks, that doesn't mean Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Co. have absolutely no chance.
"I never bet against superstars," NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes said in a phone interview last week. "If all of Chicago's guys are right and they're healthy -- including Corey Crawford -- this could be a very different outcome than what people are saying.
"It's hard for me to bet against all that experience of all those big games those guys have played in."
The Hawks' upset chances boil down to a number of factors. Let's run them down, in order of importance:
1. Silencers needed
Because teams are starting from scratch, there's a lot of talk about how the scoreboard operators may be awfully busy at the start of these playoffs.
That certainly would bode well for Patrick Kane, but it also means Edmonton superstars Connor McDavid (34G, 43A in 64 games) and Leon Draisaitl (43G, 67A) could decide this series all by themselves.
Containing McDavid's speed and Draisaitl's fantastic playmaking is no easy feat, and it's doubly hard when they're on separate lines -- as is expected. The Hawks kept this dynamic duo in check during the regular season and must do it again.
2. Star power
Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat, Duncan Keith and Calder Trophy finalist Dominik Kubalik must all be at their best. Disappearing acts by the Hawks' top players would end their chances quickly.
3. Captain hooks?
Is Corey Crawford, who missed nearly all of camp after contracting the coronavirus, truly ready for playoff hockey? And how will Edmonton deploy its two underwhelming netminders -- Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith?
Koskinen, 31, spent most of his career in the KHL before playing 92 games for Edmonton the last two seasons. Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Smith finished with a .902 save percentage and 2.95 goals-against average. He also has appeared in just five playoff games since 2012.
If Crawford's totally ready, it's advantage, Hawks.
Either way, former goalie Brian Boucher wouldn't be surprised if coaches yank a struggling goalie faster than normal during these short series.
"The hook may be there a lot quicker than it typically would be because the coaches just simply have to find a guy who can do the job," Boucher said.
4. Take no chances
Coach Jeremy Colliton was very happy with his team's performance Wednesday during a 4-0 exhibition victory over St. Louis, noting that young players such as Kirby Dach, Dylan Strome, Alex Nylander, Alex DeBrincat and Adam Boqvist did a good job of being clean with the puck and not forcing the issue.
And it's absolutely imperative that everyone plays that way against the Oilers.
"We're going to need to be very, very detailed away from the puck and of course with the puck," Colliton said. "Because if we turn the puck over against that group, they're going to make us pay. The time from when they win the puck to when the puck's in the back of your net, you can barely blink."
5. Special delivery
Edmonton's lethal power play converted 29.5 percent of the time, which is the best rate by any team in 40 years. The Hawks, who owned one of the worst penalty kills in league history in 2018-19, improved drastically this season and finished ninth at 82.1 percent. They did allow Edmonton to score 3 power-play goals on seven chances, but giving the Oilers just 2.33 chances per game was a big win.
"A big key for us will be staying out of the box," said Hawks forward Ryan Carpenter. "It's a lot easier to kill one or two or three (penalties) versus four, five and six. ...
"We know it's going to be a big part of our series. We were proud of our kill throughout the year, but them having a top power play like that and the weapons they have ... we're definitely aware of it."
6. Nothing to lose
From 2013-17, the Blackhawks generally were favored to oust their playoff opponents. This feels a whole lot different, which actually might work in their favor.
Young, speedy teams with nothing to lose often can shock an overconfident opponent, especially if they land the first few punches. For proof, look no further than Nashville in 2017 when the Predators swept the top-seeded Hawks.
"You kind of have that mentality where maybe you can play a little bit looser, where the pressure's probably more on them than us," Brandon Saad said. "But at the same time, I know the excitement is through the roof to be back in the playoffs."
7. X factors
Kirby Dach looks like a completely different player from when we saw him in March. So much so that Colliton used Dach on the penalty kill vs. St. Louis and expects to do the same against the Oilers. If Dach turns into a difference maker in this series, the Oilers could be in trouble.
That said, Edmonton has an X Factor of its own in Kailer Yamamoto. The dangerous 5-foot-8, 158-pound forward piled up 26 points (11 goals) in just 27 games. (He played 23 games in the AHL). The 21-year-old, drafted 22nd overall in 2017, likely will skate on the second line with Draisaitl and Tyler Ennis.
"His game is that modern game," Draisaitl said. "He's fast, he's feisty, he plays on the inside. With that, he has the ability to make little plays that are hard to make in the NHL nowadays. He's a very fun kid to play with."
8. Hit the gas
There's no easing into a five-game series. Colliton and goalie Collin Delia can attest to that fact as both were part of Rockford's three-game sweep of the Chicago Wolves in the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs.
"You don't want to look at it as five chances to win three games," Delia said. "You really want to get ahead quick and early and take advantage of that momentum."
So is Game 1 a must win? Almost, according to former Hawks forward and current commentator Eddie Olczyk.
"I'm going to say it's a M-U-S, and I'm getting ready to cross the 'T,' " Olczyk said. "Game 1 will be absolutely pivotal in those play-in (series) to try and get to the first round of this tournament."
Blackhawks vs. Oilers in reviewBlackhawks vs. Oilers in review
Oct. 14: Hawks 3, Oilers 1Recap: Edmonton came in 5-0-0 and the Hawks had yet to win a game, but that changed after coach Jeremy Colliton's squad held Connor McDavid (2 shots on goal in 26:21) and Leon Draisaitl (3 SOG in 26:59) in check. Patrick Kane and Alex Nylander gave the Hawks a 2-0 lead, and Brandon Saad put the game away on an empty-netter with 33 seconds remaining.
Key stat: Oilers managed just 6 second-period shots
He said it: "We know in order to be a good team going forward we have to be able to win those low-scoring games. When it comes down to playing against good teams you've got to ... keep it simple."
-- Hawks D-man Connor Murphy, who blocked 2 shots in 23:28
Feb. 11: Oilers 5, Hawks 3Recap: Adam Boqvist gave the Hawks a 3-2 lead at 1:45 of the second period, but Edmonton charged back on goals by Kailer Yamamoto (at 3:38) and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (at 4:50). Leon Draisaitl (3 assists) had an empty netter with three seconds left.
Key stat: Oilers were 2-for-3 on the power play
He said it: "(Yamamoto) surprises a lot of (defensemen) with how quick he is. If he gets beat, all of a sudden he gets right back in there. He has a good stick and creates a lot of opportunities for us."
-- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
March 5: Hawks 4, Oilers 3Recap: Hawks led 4-1 after two periods, then staved off furious rally after Oilers got goals just 49 seconds apart by Josh Archibald and Kailer Yamamoto. Corey Crawford helped cement the victory by turning away Leon Draisaitl's point-blank attempt with 2:49 remaining.
Key stats: Hawks took just one penalty and killed it off; Oilers took just 4 SOG in second period
He said it: "The biggest difference is the young players. We've got a lot of them and they're all getting better, at different speeds. Some guys have a really good week and then take a step back. They're not all getting better at the same rate, but they're getting better. And that adds up to some depth and some excitement in the group and confidence. It's fun to coach."
-- Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton, whose team won its fourth straight