Rogers Place in Edmonton accommodates a capacity of about 18,500 fans, a vast majority of whom typically shout their support for the Oilers while clad in the hometown team’s navy blue, orange and white.
Eerily, that won’t be the case Saturday afternoon as the Oilers take on the Chicago Blackhawks at Rogers Place in the opener of a best-of-five Western Conference postseason qualification series. Under the parameters of the NHL restart amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, spectators will not be allowed in the Oilers’ home arena as Edmonton serves as the hub city for games in the West.
In any event, the fifth-seeded Oilers sense the urgency of setting the tone against the No. 12 Blackhawks, especially with Chicago riding high after blanking the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues 4-0 in an exhibition Wednesday night.
“The first game in a best-of-five, it’s imperative that you start well,” Edmonton coach Dave Tippett said. “If you lose Game 1, does this mean you lose the series? No. But winning that first game certainly puts you at an advantage.
“You have to make sure your team is ready to play in Game 1, and you have to make sure your goaltender is ready to play in Game 1.”
Edmonton boasts a solid goaltending tandem in Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith, who split time somewhat evenly before the pause.
Still, that setup presents a potential conundrum for the Oilers in the playoffs. To be sure, NHL postseason history has shown the importance of relying on one stalwart in net for the duration of the playoffs. Goaltending by committee? Not so much.
Complicating matters is this: Although Koskinen has not logged one minute in the Stanley Cup playoffs, his postseason pedigree in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League is sound — 50-24 with a 1.64 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and two championships.
Chicago appears set with veteran Corey Crawford in net. Although he missed the first 12 days of summer training camp upon testing positive for COVID-19, Crawford showed well against the Blues, stopping all 11 shots he faced before yielding to Malcolm Subban at 10:06 of the second period.
Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton hadn’t finalized a starting goaltender as of Friday morning, but Crawford, who started Chicago’s final 10 games before the pause, remained upbeat in practice Thursday.
“I felt good in practice again today, so I should be ready to go, unless something crazy happens last minute,” Crawford said. “I should be all right.”
Edmonton forwards Leon Draisaitl (110) and captain Connor McDavid (97) led the league in points during the regular season, so Duncan Keith and the Blackhawks’ defense know they have their work cut out for them.
Draisaitl and McDavid played on the same line and apart at various points in the regular season.
“I’m sure we’ll see them together, I’m sure we’ll see them apart, and we have to be prepared for it,” Colliton said.
Patrick Kane (33) and Dominik Kubalik (30) were Chicago’s leading goal scorers during the regular season, while Kane (51) and captain Jonathan Toews (42) topped the team in assists.
Just eight points separated the Nos. 6-12 seeds in the West when the league entered its pause on March 12.
–Field Level Media