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Stanley Cup playoffs preview: Oilers facing veritable must-win vs. Kings

·6-min read

Two franchises inextricably linked by the greatest-ever talent will test their current levels decades later in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings locking horns in the two-three matchup in the Pacific Division.

On the surface it seems like a fairly favorable draw for the Oilers and even a virtual must-win series when assessing the career arcs of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl — even if there is only a negligible difference in the final standings between the two teams. Edmonton had major expectations entering the season and, despite the uneven road to this point, the pressures to perform and win have been re-established and even heightened on its current run down the stretch. Conversely, the Kings arrive to this moment ahead of schedule and without their No. 1 defenseman, Drew Doughty, who's out until next season with a wrist injury.

It's clear the advantage lies with Edmonton, and it's imperative the Oilers take advantage with just a single postseason series victory on the ledger through seven regular seasons with the NHL's greatest singular talent.

(As an interesting sidebar, it will be one of the several recent former Oilers coaches who failed to make it work, Todd McLellan, aiming to slow McDavid down from the opposing bench, this time).

Fortunately for Edmonton, much has changed since that last failed coach, Dave Tippett, was dropped in-season. This has been a top-five team in the NHL since the switch to head coach Jay Woodcroft, having risen from fifth in the division to second and establishing some pretty concrete roots in the form of some impressive underlying data behind a 24-9-3 record overall. Most importantly, the team hasn't over-leveraged its star nucleus of McDavid and Draisaitl like it has in the past with supporting talents such as Evander Kane, Zach Hyman and Jesse Puljujarvi performing very well. It hasn't all been on the two prodigious talents, which makes the Oilers that much more dangerous.

The primary concern with Edmonton remains the goaltending, which has been far and dramatically improved of late, which we will detail in a moment. But no matter how well Mike Smith or Mikko Koskinen have performed at points in the season, it's still hard to imagine that either — or even a combination of the two — will hold up through four rounds in the postseason. That's the bed Ken Holland made and will have to lie in.

As eluded to, the Kings are one team that overshot preseason expectations the most, having finished at least 10 points better than their projected points total. This team has consistently delivered some upper-echelon baseline numbers, ranking in the top 10 league wide in expected goals percentage, shot share and scoring chance share. The issue is the Kings lack that top-end finishing talent and rank dead last in overall shooting percentage. Some of that is luck-based, although much of it can be attributed to the fact they don't have many naturally gifted goal scorers.

Goaltending, too, has contributed to preventing the Kings from cashing in on all that great work from shift to shift, albeit perhaps not to the same degree that shooting has. Still, Jonathan Quick and Cal Peterson have provided roughly .900 on balance this season, which is the worst among Western Conference playoff teams.

Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers have no excuses against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)
Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers have no excuses against the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the NHL playoffs. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

What have you done for me lately?

Edmonton has looked the part more and more in the weeks since making its coaching change, but for better or worse the goaltending always stands out. Smith has been sensational over the last month, featuring a .951 total save percentage and an otherworldly 15.36 goals save above average in nine starts. Utterly unreliable for the first five or six months of the season, Smith is suddenly providing the sort of level required in the postseason — times a bunch. Beyond earning a start in Game 1 versus L.A. though, one has to wonder what that's worth. Because there is no way Smith should be expected to maintain his current form. The wonder is how far the standard will drop.

More optimistically, everything else seems either repeatable, or even due for positive regression. Unlike last season when they were the production pace car, the Oilers haven't gotten caught up in the feverish scoring races and pursuits of nice round numbers from an individual or team standpoint — even with McDavid running away with the Art Ross. That is to say, what we have seen in the last month from Edmonton seems somewhat sustainable aside from the ludicrous numbers being posted by Smith.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, deserves loads of credit for not just surviving the hard charges from the Vegas Golden Knights and Vancouver Canucks but locking down the No. 3 seed with an impressive run down the stretch. Since appearing vulnerable on the heels of three straight losses and after receiving news that Doughty was lost for the remainder of the season, L.A. rhymed off five victories in six games — the only loss coming to Colorado — to slam the door shut.

The Oilers will win the series if...

The goaltending is adequate. This is likely the most lopsided series when comparing top-end talent. Normally there's only one way to even that playing field.

The Kings will win the series if...

They cut down on events even more so than they do typically. Minimizing scoring chances, power plays and zone time will work to smooth over the the talent discrepancy, which should open the series up to more variance. It's been a key to the Kings' season so far.

Series hero

It's time for McDavid to overwhelm an opponent in a postseason series. Edmonton has lost seven of its last eight postseason games over the space of two seasons. He was held pointless in the final two losses versus the Winnipeg Jets in their four-game first-round exit last summer. With renewed confidence in his team and in his coach, and the most productive season of his career in rearview, McDavid should be ready to take this head on.

By the way, Los Angeles is a team McDavid has crushed in his career, scoring 12 goals and 32 points in 24 career games.

The Fernando Pisani Trophy (Unsung Hero)

In order for McDavid to dominate, however, he'll have to go through the stalwart who ground the talented centers of last season's North Division into submission. Phillip Danault remains a defensive ace, and the sort of player who can remove immense talents from the equation. He's just as responsible as anyone in the Kings' lineup for minimizing quality looks and scoring chances against, and could wind up being the difference in another underdog series win.

Prediction

Oilers in six.

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