For all the offensive stars between the Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers, big megawatt scorers like Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid, it is the goaltending that bears watching heading into their qualifying series.
Corey Crawford missed the start of training camp with the Blackhawks after he tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the veteran goaltender very little time to prepare for high-scoring Edmonton. Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen are in the mix for the starting job for the Oilers, but both goalies could play in the post-season.
Game 1 of the best-of-five series is Saturday in Edmonton.
“There’s been a lot of lead-up going to this point. … I think guys are excited about this opportunity, this chance to beat a very good hockey team,” Smith said.
While Edmonton hasn’t named a Game 1 starter just yet, the 38-year-old Smith has a long history with coach Dave Tippett and 24 career playoff appearances, compared to none for Koskinen. Smith had a 2.95 goals-against average and .902 save percentage in 39 games this season; Koskinen finished with a 2.75 GAA and .917 save percentage in 38 appearances.
Smith also was in net for Tippett when the Coyotes eliminated the Blackhawks in the 2012 playoffs, making 39 saves in a 4-0 victory in the clinching Game 6.
Smith said that series “seems like 100 years ago now.”
“Obviously, a team that has had a lot of experience in the playoffs,” he said of the Blackhawks. “Won Stanley Cups, so it’ll be a good test for our group.”
Crawford was in net when Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015. He is 48-37 with a .919 save percentage and 2.28 goals-against average in 87 career playoff appearances.
But he just returned to practice on Saturday after missing the start of training camp while he was in quarantine.
“Obviously it’s a priority for us to get him ready as soon as we can,” coach Jeremy Colliton said. “The sooner we can integrate him into the group and get back to his normal routine that he would normally be under I think the better for everyone.”
The 35-year-old Crawford had been playing well when the NHL was shut down because of the pandemic, recording a .930 save percentage in his last 17 games. The Blackhawks are carrying four goaltenders on their 31-man post-season roster, but Crawford is expected to start Game 1 against the Oilers.
How he performs against McDavid and company with such a short preparation window remains to be seen.
“There’s not much time, but I’ve never really been someone that skates a ton in the summer anyway,” Crawford said. “But I feel like it takes a few practices just to get your legs under you. I mean it doesn’t really matter what you do in the gym.
“I think a little bit more the cardio part, the endurance in the legs, after I get a few practices that will be a lot better.”
WHAT’S UP DACH?
Kirby Dach was one of the Blackhawks’ best players during their training camp, centring a line with fellow rookie Dominik Kubalik and former Oilers winger Drake Caggiula.
The 19-year-old Dach, who was selected by Chicago with the No. 3 overall pick in last year’s draft, had eight goals and 15 assists in 64 games this season. The Fort Saskatchewan native could have a big series in his return to Alberta.
HOME SWEET HOME?
Edmonton is playing in its own building after the NHL selected Rogers Place for one of its hubs for the league’s return from the pandemic. But the Oilers will be considered the visitors for Games 3 and 4 of the qualifying round — albeit with no fans in attendance for the entire series.
“We’re in the same boat as all the other teams,” Tippett said. “We’re in our dressing room one day, and then out of it the next day. We tried to prepare for that during training camp. We’ve had some scrimmages, players dress out of different dressing rooms around. You just try to deal with it.”
Led by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, a finalist for the NHL MVP award, the Oilers had the top power play in the league this season, converting 29.5% of their chances. They also killed 84.4% of their opponents’ power-play opportunities, ranking second behind San Jose.
Even with the gifted Kane on its top unit, Chicago had one of the worst power plays in the league at 15.2%. But its penalty killers finished in the top 10 at 82.1%.
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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Jay Cohen, The Associated Press