The 2020 play-ins and playoffs will more closely resemble preseason hockey than any sort of competitive matchup between in-rhythm teams at the peak of their production. In these situations, raw talent typically beats systems. Given the alleged system that Jeremy Colliton runs—which often includes such scenes as “Connor Murphy chasing at his own blue line” and “developing 2-on-0s at the top of the circles despite the Hawks icing five guys in their own zone”—you might think this bodes well for the Blackhawks. And it actually might in terms of forwards.
Oilers forwards and potential combos
In their heyday, the Hawks focused on speed to overpower opponents. Though that ship has sailed for this iteration of the Hawks, it’s clearly found safe harbor in Edmonton.
Connor McDavid is not only the best player on the planet but also the fastest. Draisaitl—who won the Art Ross and is in the running for the Lindsey and the Hart—also fast. Yamamoto? Fast. Joakim Nygard (if he plays coming off a broken hand)? Fast. Athanasiou? Really fucking fast. With at least one burner on each line in the top 9 for Edmonton, the Oilers will have a North–South advantage.
On top of speed, the Oilers have two guys who can do it all by themselves in McDavid and Draisiatl. Yamamoto’s emergence as “the guy Stan Bowman wished Alex Nylander were” gives the Oilers matchup options for when Coach Nathan For You shows us yet again that he has no idea how matchups work. RNH was having a strong year for himself and was on pace to put up his best point-per-game total of his career. Even Zack Kassian potted 15 goals and James Neal came close to 20. There’s a bit more depth to this forward corps than meets the eye.
But it’ll boil down to speed and the fact that the Oilers have two 90+ point scorers on the ice for at least two-thirds of the game. That’s a tough hump to get over.
Blackhawks forwards and potential combos
This is as close to the classic Hawks 3–1 forward makeup as we’ve seen in the Colliton era, even if the second and third lines are half baked. If there’s a bright spot to how this play-in will work, it’s that Jeremy Colliton can get away with his only useful move: icing Patrick Kane for 30–35 minutes a game. On three months of rest and with nothing to lose, Kane by himself could at least make this series interesting, even if Crawford can’t go.
The big story out of camp has been how good the Kane line has looked with Nylander and Strome. It’s always fun to hear about how good Alex Nylander looks in practice and watch him score slick goals when the Hawks are up by three or four. When shit matters, he’s a ghost, but you can bet your bottom goddamn dollar Colliton is going to keep trotting him out there. Kane and Strome have a ton of proven chemistry, and though it’d probably be wiser to slot Kubalik over Nylander, there’s no use in asking a giraffe to change its spots at this point.
The most interesting line will be the Dach line. Though Kubalik is decidedly not a third liner, and neither is Dach, putting these two together makes sense. Dach’s hands and vision coupled with Kubalik’s speed, shot, and willingness to GET IN DA DIRTY CORNERS DARE MY FRENT could expose the Oilers’s soft underbelly. Patrick Kane will be the one keeping them in contention, but this is the line that will win it for the Hawks, if they’re going to win.
Everyone who’s seen Dach in Magic Training Camp II says he looks faster and stronger than ever before. Whether that’s per se or simply because he’s skating with a collection of rusted jalopies is the question, but given how he really started coming into his own late last year, we buy it. Pairing him with Caggiula makes sense in theory, as Caggiula would be the primary go-get-the-puck guy. But with his concussion history and the massiveness of Edmonton’s fourth line, he’s vulnerable to another serious head injury out there.
You figure the Kampf line will try to shut down McDavid while the Toews line works Draisaitl et al. Kampf had success against McDavid the two times he saw him during the regular season, and he’ll need to repeat that if the Hawks are to have any hope of not giving up six goals a game. The real question will be whether Toews and Saad can handle Draisaitl and Yamamoto.
Forward advantage: Hawks by an asshair
The Oilers have better top-end talent but slightly less depth than the Hawks. For as fast as Athanasiou is, that’s all he really is. So, if Colliton can find a way to match the Dach line against him, they’ll get some opportunities. The Hawks will need Dach and Kubalik to continue outperforming expectations to hang with this squad, but it’s doable. If the Toews and Kampf lines can hold serve against McDavid and Draisaitl—especially if DeBrincat can shake his rotten shooting luck—the Hawks can at least make a run.
Lotta ifs, though.