When explaining the reasons for his team losing Game 1 of its play-in series against the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett had no shortage of reasons, but focused on one in particular. “We made too many mistakes,” Tippett said. And he was right about that, starting with the mistake Tippett himself made before the opening faceoff.
A sense of loyalty to a veteran who has delivered before is a noble thing, but it can also get you into a heap of trouble. And that’s exactly what Tippett created when he chose Mike Smith to start in goal over Mikko Koskinen in the Oilers’ 6-4 loss to open the 2019-20 post-season. Tippett and Smith have a history that goes back to their days with the Arizona (nee Phoenix) Coyotes and instead of playing the goalie who was better through the regular season and in the second training camp, Tippett went with a hunch and started Smith and it went disastrously.
The Oilers were so bad from superstar Connor McDavid down the line that perhaps it might not have mattered which goalie Tippett started. Perhaps Dominik Kubalik of the Blackhawks, who set an NHL record with five points in his playoff debut, would have torched Koskinen as well. But the Oilers lost by only two goals. With the exception of the Blackhawks first goal, on which Smith blundered badly, the other four goals he gave up were acceptable. But what Smith did not do was what Tippett thought he would and that was give his team a big save when it was needed. That was the difference between a young team being overwhelmed in its first playoff game in three years and staying in the game and being out of it before the end of the first period.
As for Kubalik, this is quite a story that is emerging here. The 24-year-old who was acquired for nothing from the Los Angeles Kings, not only scored 30 goals this season, but did more with less than any other player in the league. He was an elite performer despite pulling down third-line minutes, at just 14:42 a game. And in his first playoff encounter, he scored two goals and three assists while playing just 13:56. Part of that is undoubtedly because Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton is sheltering Kubalik, but it might be scary to contemplate what he would do with more ice time and offensive responsibility. Of course, playing on a line with Jonathan Toews and Brandon Saad and playing the point on the power play is a boon for him, but he is clearly earning his status as a Calder Trophy finalist.
“To play with the guys I’m playing with makes it a lot easier,” Kubalik said. “We’ve found some chemistry together and everyone is doing their job and it’s working. I’m just trying to do my job and I’m just really happy it’s working.”
It worked, in Game 1 at least, because of Toews, who certainly didn’t look like a player whose best days are behind him. Captain Serious was a beast and essentially took McDavid out to the woodshed. McDavid finished the game with a goal and two assists, but it might have been the worst three-point night he’s registered as an NHL player. Toews picked McDavid clean on the faceoff that led to Saad’s goal that put the Blackhawks up 2-1, then was knocked off the puck along the boards rather easily by Saad on the Toews goal that increased the Blackhawks’ lead by two later in the period.
The game actually started shockingly, with the Oilers surrendering two odd-man rushes in the opening minutes, which set the tone and exposed them as a group that didn’t look one bit ready for the biggest stage in hockey against a team that has seen and conquered everything in the playoffs. It was shocking to see how terrible the Oilers were at 5-on-5 play, particularly in the first period, and how that carried over to one of the league’s best penalty-kill units being torched for three goals.
“Usually, the team that makes the most mistakes ends up on the back side of it,” Tippett said, “and we made the most mistakes.”
Ultimately, the Oilers scored late to make this game look a lot closer than it was. A team that was supposed to contend for a Stanley Cup looked putrid in its first game. The Oilers will undoubtedly be better for no other reason than they couldn’t possibly be worse. And they’ll have Koskinen in the nets from the opening faceoff in Game 2. This is still a very winnable series for the Oilers against a team that gives up a ton of chances. But if the Oilers are as unprepared for Game 2 as they were for Game 1, it’s clear they’re not yet ready to call themselves a contender.
As for the Blackhawks, they managed to have Chelsea Dagger played over the sound system six times. It’s a song their core players have heard many times before in big games, so much so that it’s really the soundtrack to their careers. That they heard it so many times because of a rookie was a surprise, but then again, 2020 has been a year of surprises.