Special teams are key in any game, but for the Blackhawks' Qualifying Round series against the Edmonton Oilers, they could be the difference.
During the truncated 2019-20 season, the Oilers owned the league's best power play unit, operating at a lethal 29.5 percent efficiency -- a full four percentage points higher than the second-place Boston Bruins and the highest conversion rate the NHL's seen since the late 1970s. On the flip side, they also boasted the NHL's second-ranked penalty kill at 84.4 percent.
"We understand the challenge their team poses, strong in both facets of special teams," head coach Jeremy Colliton said last week. "We've been spending time on it and we'll continue to do that."
On the man advantage, the Blackhawks fell from middle of the pack in 2018-19 at a 20.2 percent success rate, to 28th this season at 15.2 percent -- nearly half that of Edmonton's. Chicago went 0-for-8 in three regular season meetings against the Oilers as well (and 4-for-7 on the kill).
The power play was a big focus of the two-week training camp in Chicago, though, with Colliton loading up the top unit of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Kirby Dach, Dominik Kubalik and Duncan Keith.
"I think it's coming right along," Toews said of the focus on the man advantage. "I think we're understanding what our options are, there are a lot of options to shoot, especially when a guy like Kaner has the puck … I think we're just trying to get in that place where we're creative and we're relaxed and we can keep getting pucks back and keep plays alive after we take those shots. It's getting in a rhythm because we know it's going to be a big part of this series."
In their own right, the Blackhawks saw a major uptick in their shorthanded efforts this season, killing off 82.1 percent of their penalties -- tied for eighth in the league -- after finishing dead last at 72.7 percent the year before. Keeping that momentum on the penalty kill in the postseason could largely come down to limiting how often it's being deployed.
"They're a really good power play, it seems like they just need a couple chances and it's in the back of the net," said Ryan Carpenter, a key addition to the revamped Blackhawks penalty kill. "A big key for us too will be staying out of the box. I think it's a lot easier to kill one or two or three penalty kills than four, five and six. It seems like a power play can really get some momentum and hurt you. We know it's going to be a big part of our series."
Even strength could also be advantageous for the Blackhawks, not only in thwarting the Oilers' power play, but in the fact that the hometown team wasn't able to find the same success in 5-on-5 play. Over the course of the regular season, Edmonton outscored Chicago 223-208 overall, but trailed when it came to full-strength scoring, 142-147 -- a 20-tally swing in goal differential.
"Both our special teams were excellent (but) we relied on them (too much) sometimes," Oilers head coach Dave Tippett told reporters on Monday in Edmonton. "In the second half of the season it was less to that extent, our 5-on-5 improved. That's an onus that we put on during training camp here, that we need to be a better 5-on-5 team and more consistent."
"We feel good about it," Colliton said of his special teams heading into the postseason. "We think we've made progress in both areas this year, but now we're in another huge test and we'll continue to prepare. We'd like to be playing 5-on-5 as much as we can -- or at least not be killing penalties, we'd take our power plays. If we can win the special teams battle, it'll be huge for us."