Oilers vs. Jets 2021 playoff debut and preview

May 8, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point of the season on a goal by forward Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
May 8, 2021; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid (97) celebrates his 100th point of the season on a goal by forward Leon Draisaitl (29) against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports /

Playoff hockey is a different animal.  When it comes to the playoffs, games are more uptempo, tighter defensively, more physical, and all-around harder, the Oilers learned that the hard way on Wednesday.

The Jets have more experience in the playoffs than the Oilers do at this point, having missed the playoffs only once since 2015.  The Oilers, on the other hand, have made the playoffs in 2017 and last year’s play-in series loss to Chicago (which depending on who you talk to wasn’t actually playoffs, although for the record the NHL declared it to be the playoffs) and that’s it.

While the Oilers retain most of their core from those series, the Jets have practically been a country club membership list, only making their first franchise-altering move outside of the draft earlier during the season when they traded Roslovic and Laine to Columbus for Dubois – and both Laine and Roslovic requested trades out of Winnipeg to make that happen.

While the Jets have made more playoff appearances than the Oilers have, they’ve also met with limited success,

The Jets have only gotten past the 2nd round of the playoffs once in recent memory. Is it better to not make the playoffs at all, or to waste the prime years of your core by being perennial playoff chokers?

That’s a philosophical question you’ll have to answer for yourself.  More than 1 team’s window to win has slammed shut without a Cup win – just ask the San Jose Sharks how it feels to paradoxically underachieve and rebuild at the same time because you are being crushed under the weight of so many bad contracts that you can’t initiate a full rebuild.

But in yesterday’s game, one thing was for sure – the Jets experience showed while the Oilers were perhaps a bit more tentative than they should’ve been.

Fortunately for them, they’ve got more to give.  The McDrai duo are more aggressive than they showed in this game, and while Jesse Puljujarvi scoring without them is encouraging, the bottom six looked just as tentative out there as the top-six did.

This has to change if the Oilers want to win the series.  Until that meltdown with 3 goals in the 3rd period, they had done a pretty good job of containing the Jets and their high-powered top-six forward groups.  They’re better defensively than that.

Other than the fact that Zack Kassian had been put in the lineup while Devin Shore had been taken out, and Alex Chiasson moved down to the fourth line, the lineup that finished the regular season as one of the NHL’s hottest teams was basically intact.

The Oilers have the horses to beat Winnipeg in this series, they just have to gallop better than they did in game one.

How’s the rest of the series look?  Nothing’s guaranteed, of course, but I think it looks like a good match-up for Edmonton.

Preview of the rest of the series

The Oilers can beat Winnipeg even when the Jets are healthy, and right now the Jets are missing two key players in Nikolai Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois.  They’re supposed to be back later on in the series, but the Oilers need to take advantage of this while they can.

After all, the Oilers have the McDrai duo, the two best players in the league this year.  Doesn’t matter if it’s regular season or playoffs, these two produce.  McDavid has 10 goals and 18 points in 18 career playoff games so far, while Dr. Drai has 9 goals and 22 points in 18 playoff games.

While the Jets offence is spread out a little more – with six stars in the top-six instead of two superstars, the Oilers feed the opposition a steady diet of the two superstars – which any coach in Dave Tippett’s position would do.  Why wouldn’t they do it?

And it’s not like the rest of the top-six is chopped liver.  There’s the Nuge, the reliable star winger that can also play center and put up points playing with either McDavid or Draisaitl.  The two complementary youngsters, Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi, are two power forwards whose careers are on the upswing.

Yamamoto’s boxcars this past season might not have been that great, but over a full 82 game season he would’ve put up 12 goals and 32 points.  Those would’ve both been career highs for him – and he’s only 22 so the best is still yet to come.  Also, we recently came to understand he was playing hurt for at least part of the season.

Dominik Kahun was brought in to fill out the top six, and again while his numbers don’t look impressive, he was starting to look more like the guy we signed him to be in the last 5 games of the regular season, showing chemistry with both McDavid and Nuge.  Oddly enough, he didn’t show chemistry with Dr. Drai, his childhood friend.

I’ll go further in a future blog, but I see Kahun as the perfect player Holland is looking to fill out his team with right now, at least until the high draft pick wingers on the farm are ready for prime time.  He can re-sign Kahun for cheap on a bridge contract, allowing him to re-allocate cap space elsewhere to shore up team weaknesses.

He might be the one wildcard in the top six, as much like Puljujarvi this is his first taste of NHL playoffs, having spent the other years of his career on lousy teams in Chicago and Buffalo, and a team looking more mortal in Pittsburgh two seasons ago.

Many have criticized the Oilers’ bottom six for not providing enough depth, but personally, I’m a bit more bullish on them than others.  The top 6 guys you expect to score, but our bottom 6 could surprise the Jets.  James Neal was rounding into form at the end of the season, having been through 2 bouts of covid during the regular season and missing training camp because of it.  Hard to recover when you miss training camp.

Zack Kassian has struggled in recent years but he did lead the team in scoring in the 1st round in 2017.  There’s potential for him to be that player again.  The callup Ryan Mcleod is being trusted with a regular shift in the bottom 6 when other more experienced centers are sitting out – which should tell you how much the coaching staff is on board with this player.

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Juhjar Khaira and Alex Chiasson have both revitalized their careers this past season, and took good momentum into the playoffs.  Chiasson and Neal are key cogs in the Oilers 1st PP unit, which if you recall finished 1st in the league in the regular season.  Josh Archibald is a defensive machine who also hits, blocks shots, and produces secondary offence – exactly the kind of player you need in the playoffs.

Meanwhile, the Oilers’ defence is miles above what Winnipeg produces.  The Oilers had a potent pairing this past season with Tyson Barrie and Darnell Nurse, who were consistently producing points all season and went into the playoffs on a high note.  PS the Oilers were the only team in the league to have two d-men in the top 12 in NHL scoring amongst blueliners (Barrie was #1 and Nurse was #12).

Dmitry Kulikov – an ex-Jet – and Adam Larsson are a shutdown pairing waiting in the wings to kill off that potent Winnipeg top six.  The depth of the Oilers’ D corps means they have a variety of options for third pairing left side.  Caleb Jones struggled this season, which explains why he sat out the first game.

There’s also gritty veteran Kris Russell, defensive youngster William Laggeson, and the man tapped to actually play the game last night, Slater Koekkoek, another defensive stalwart.  The right side is manned by Ethan Bear, who also struggled in the regular season but was redeeming himself in the last 10 games.

Evan Bouchard is next up, and to be honest I questioned why he wouldn’t be playing more considering his performance in the last regular-season game he played (more on that in future blogs).  The aforementioned Russell can also play the right side if necessary.  The Jets had 1 productive scorer from their D corps, Neal Pionk.  2 other blueliners struggled this season, Dylan Demelo and Josh Morrisey.

Then you’ve got Derek Forbort, who on most teams would be in the 3rd pairing but on this one he’s playing on the 2nd pairing.  On the 3rd pairing, there’s Tucker Poolman and rookie Logan Stanley.  Yeah, they had a goal and an assist between them yesterday, but to be honest I wouldn’t count on that every night.

Old guy Mike Smith is having a season for the ages and surprising everyone in his path (including yours truly) by being in the conversation for the Vezina trophy.  He’s working in tandem with Mikko Koskinen, who struggled this year but is still a more reliable option in the playoffs than backup Laurent Brossoit on the Jets.

Connor Hellebuyck is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, and that’s not for nothing.  He has a history of near-elite play in the playoffs.  But, I wouldn’t bet against Mike Smith in a goaltenders’ duel.  Even with last season’s disastrous start in game one of the play-in series, he still has a .933 sv% and a 2.32 GAA in 26 playoff games over his career.  Those are the best career playoff numbers of any of the 4 goaltenders in this series.

What’s my prediction? 

I think the Oilers are going to take this one, 4-2.  Winnipeg won’t let them win easily by any stretch, but the Oilers have two superstars in the top six, depth that’s on the rise, a better D corps, and a starting goalie that is capable of the same playoff performance as Hellebuyck, maybe more.

What would make Winnipeg upset in the series? 

Even with the Oilers being the favorites to win, the Jets aren’t going to roll over and die.  If anything, that’s the wake-up call we should’ve seen last night.

If Winnipeg wins, it’ll be because of this:

  • Connor Hellebuyck wins the goaltending duel
  • Winnipeg’s top six gets scoring from all their guys
  • Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolai Ehlers get healthy and contribute
  • They stop Connor Mcdavid and Leon Draisaitl
  • They get more secondary scoring
  • They want to shed their choker label
  • They don’t feel as much pressure to win because they’re the underdogs

What would make the Oilers win the series? 

The Oilers are the favorites to win in this series.  They’re healthy outside of Oscar Klefbom, who we knew wouldn’t be back anyway and we’re not missing because of Tyson Barrie.

If Edmonton wins, it’ll be because of this:

  • Mcdavid and Draisaitl elevate their games and continue their previous playoff success
  • The rest of the top six elevates their games as well and chips in to take the heat off of the big two
  • The bottom six chips in secondary offence as well like we know they can
  • Mike Smith wins the goaltending duel
  • They elevate their defensive game and keep the Jet’s top six at bay
  • Their special teams carry over their success from the regular season – especially the PP
  • They use the disappointment of last year as motivation to win the series
  • They have better depth at forward, D, and goaltending