Toews vs McDavid or Draisaitl: Toews is Chicago’s best defensive forward by a landslide, and the Oilers have two superstars that will need attention. Toews is one man, and he can only be assigned to one of them. I don’t know which of the two Toews will be tasked with shutting down, but I do know that the other one had better make hay against Chicago’s other forward lines that do not have the same level of defensive ability. If Toews can do his part and shut down one of the two, then Chicago will have a great chance of winning the series. If not, then Edmonton will roll.
Prediction: While Toews is one of the best two-way centers in the game, there isn’t anyone that can stop McDavid or Draisaitl over the course of a 5-game playoff series. Toews averaged 19:47 TOI during the regular season, while Draisaitl averaged 22:37 (1st among NHL forwards) and McDavid averaged 21:52 (3rd among NHL forwards). Toews will have to eat a lot more ice time, or the Hawks will just have to accept that there will be a few shifts in each game where Toews won’t be out against whichever of the two he is supposed to be covering. Tippett will double shift McDavid and/or Draisaitl and get them out against the other team’s 4th line on occasion. Toews will not win this match-up. McDavid and Draisaitl simply play too many minutes for him to keep up.
Kane vs Nurse and Bear: Patrick Kane is Chicago’s top offensive weapon. He is the sneakiest player in the NHL. He can beat you in any number of different ways, whether it’s by using his speed, his silky smooth hands, or his high IQ. I anticipate that the Oilers will use whichever forward line can escape the Toews matchup against Kane, but I believe that Kane will see a lot of Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear every night. Nurse and Bear led the Oilers in even strength time on ice during the 2019-20 season. Both guys can move well enough to defend the Kane line. Nurse’s physicality will disrupt the flow of that line in the offensive zone, and Bear’s poise with the puck and his ability to move it up the ice efficiently will help prevent that line from pinning the Oilers in their own zone for any amount of time. If that tandem can shut down Kane, then the Oilers will have a really good chance at winning this series.
Prediction: I love Nurse and Bear, but they are far from perfect defensively. They will make a few mistakes over the course of the series. The Kane line will likely be up against one of McDavid or Draisaitl, whichever one that Toews does not get matched up against. Niether of those lines have been praised for their defence. Kane will get his points in this series, but the Hawks will need some support from their depth players at even strength.
Kubalik Line vs Sheahan Line: Dominik Kubalik had a strong rookie campaign for Chicago. He finished 3rd in team scoring with 30 goals and 46 points. 30 goals as a rookie in a full season is impressive, but Kubalik did it in 68 games! He has been skating on a line with Fort Saskatchewan’s Kirby Dach and former Oiler Drake Caggiula at camp thus far, which has the makings of an annoying 3rd line. It will be up to Riley Sheahan’s line to shut them down. Sheahan and Josh Archibald have been great together on a defensive minded 3rd line for the Oilers, but they do not produce much in the way of offence. Nobody will mistake anyone on that line for a 30-goal scorer like Kubalik. The Hawks outscored the Oilers by 11 goals at even strength before the pause. Lack of production from the bottom 6 in Edmonton is a big reason for that deficit. If the Kubalik line can produce, then the Oilers will have a tough time winning this series.
Prediction: We have to remember that Sheahan is not at 100% health right now. I believe that the Kubalik line will outscore the Sheahan line. However, I will be very interested to see how well the two rookies Kubalik and Dach will hold up in the playoffs against a line with the amount of polish that the Sheahan line has.
Oilers PP vs Hawks PK: The winner of this battle will have the highest impact on the outcome of this series. The Oilers PP was the top rated unit in the league before the pause, so the spotlight will certainly be on the Oilers top PP group. Chicago’s PK unit was no slouch, sitting in the 9th spot in the league in that department. A PK group that is in the top third of the league that has had around 2 months to study the Oilers PP in advance of a series is not something to be ignored. If the Blackhawks can stifle the Oilers powerplay, then their odds of winning the series will be quite high.
Prediction: The Oilers PP was running at the best percentage we’ve seen in the NHL in about 40 years before the pause. I can pretty much guarantee that they will not be THAT effective in these playoffs. They will regress towards the mean. We also have to remember that it’s harder to draw penalties in the playoffs. Chicago was 20th in the league in penalty minutes, and we know the Oilers have trouble getting the calls at the best of times. The Oilers got 200 powerplay opportunities in the 71 games before the pause (2.82/game). If we assume a 25% success rate (which would be quite good), and if we assume that the Oilers get 2 attempts per game, then it would take them 2 games to score 1 powerplay goal. They would need to draw 4 penalties per game to average 1 powerplay goal per game. That’s going to be tough to achieve for the Oilers.
Series Prediction: This was honestly very close to being one of my upset picks, but I’m still going to take the Oilers in this series. It’s going to be a close one. I don’t think that the Oilers will win on the strength of their powerplay. I think they will win because of McDavid and Draisaitl. I believe that those two are too good and they play too many minutes to be stopped. The Hawks just don’t have the horses to stop them. I think the Hawks will be able to keep it close with their depth scoring at even strength, but I don’t see them upsetting the Oilers in this play-in series. Oilers in 5.