While it was pretty well assumed that the preliminary series between the Oilers and Hawks was going to have all the defensive structure of a Jackson Pollock rough draft, Saturday afternoon’s tilt showed just how silly this whole thing has the potential of getting in a hurry. And fortunately the Hawks came out on top putting the Oilers immediately on their heels in this short 5 game series.
It was a point that was labored over in our exhaustive (and predictably brilliant) previews, but given the weapons Dave Tippett had at his disposal and the fetid mess that is the Hawks’ defensive zone coverage, there weren’t many matchups available that weren’t advantageous to the Oilers so long as McDavid and Draisaitl were split up, and as long as they didn’t have to go head to head against Toews regularly, which wasn’t a problem considering Tippett is a competent if not visionary coach. And indeed that was the case, as McDavid saw the most time against Connor Murphy, Calvin de Haan, and David Kampf, who are all representative NHL players, but certainly ones that McDavid should be able to fare better than about a 35 share against. Leon The Ladies’ Man fared a little better against Murphy and DeHaan at evens, but saw the most time against Kirby Dach as a forward and predictably tilted the ice when the two were head to head. Neither saw more than 3 and a half minutes against Toews at evens, so the matchups were there, the Oilers simply didn’t execute, and looked disorganized much of the time. Even with the protracted time off, this is still uncharacteristic of a Tippett coached team, which may speak volumes about the caliber of player the Oilers are dealing with past 97 and 29. Still, even with that being the case, they’re quite capable of taking things on entirely on their own.
The other big story from Saturday were Mike Smith’s….issues in net, giving up 5 goals in less than 30 minutes of work. And as much fun as it is to shit all over Mike Smith for his theatrics, realistically, only 1 one of those, the first from Strome was his fault. A double deflection, two completely blown coverages leaving Toews totally alone twice, and a complete bomb on a power play are hardly on him alone, and Tippett said as much yesterday, though he didn’t outwardly declare the cage to be Smith’s to start again tonight.
As for the Hawks, while there was plenty to be pleased with, there are things that still have the potential of biting them squarely in the ass. First and foremost, this team needs to stay the fuck out of the penalty box. It was hammered on before Game 1, and then absolutely hammered home by two perennial MVP and scoring champion contenders. However, the Hawks aren’t doing themselves any favors with how they’re currently structured, adhering mostly to a box PK formation, where a diamond (one man high, one at each faceoff dot, one in front) may help their cause considering McDavid and Draisaitl both work the half wall to the top of the rings on either side, and try to get a seam pass coming across. A Diamond puts more sticks in traffic, and also lessens the probability of one of them becoming comically wide open as McDavid was for the first marker.
There also has to be a hope that Corey Crawford looks a little more stable than he did in Game 1, though he did make more than a few solid saves. He was a bit more panicked in his crease during scrambles, particularly during the sequence that led to Draisaitl’s goal in the 2nd period. None of this should be that surprising, considering a) he’s returning from a respiratory plague, and b) was given all of about 2 practices and half a scrimmage before being trusted to fend off those two forces of nature. The fact of the matter is the Hawks managed to win a game this series where Corey Crawford wasn’t their best player, and that should be fairly encouraging.
There certainly are positives as well, as one would expect from a win. That obviously starts with Dominik Kubalik, who had himself quite an afternoon. And while the two goals will get the attention, he had his three assists prior to that, and was a part of a line that got whatever it wanted all afternoon against basically any matchup they were faced with. Not only can 20-19-8 be used to drive offensive production, but it also has the responsibility to make one of the two WMD’s on the other side have to play defense, which this series is certainly going to need before all is said and done. Additionally, the power play looked quite competent, thanks in large part to Kirby Dach looking quite solid as the vaunted Net Front Presence. While only 19 and a rookie, the kid is still 6’4″ and 200 lbs and has hands when he needs them. If he can draw attention in front, that will certainly free up looks like Kubalik’s rocket or Toews being able to sneak in completely un accounted for.
Coach Jeremy Prinze Jr. got away with both his goalie floundering a bit and still not giving the slightest fuck about matchups because the Oilers will still occasionally Oiler. But that’s not a long term recipe for success here. And since there has been little to no indication in Alpo Colliton’s young career that he has any interest whatsoever in line matching, it’s going to be incumbent upon Corey Crawford to shake off more of the rust and be a bit sharper if the Hawks are going to win two of the next four. Let’s go Hawks.