The biggest names in the upcoming qualifier series between the Blackhawks and Oilers are all skaters. That’ll happen when the league’s top two scorers face off against a team led by a pair of three-time Stanley Cup champions.
But goaltending remains one of hockey’s most important positions and, despite so many aspects of this year’s playoffs being different, that remains unchanged. Considering the lack of top talent among each team’s blue line, the men between the pipes may be the deciding factor in this series.
Each team used a platoon in the regular season, with Edmonton’s duo still intact while the Blackhawks sent half of theirs to the land of casinos in Las Vegas. Crawford’s starting role and perfect 11-save performance in Chicago’s 4-0 exhibition win against the Blues on Wednesday night suggest he’ll get the nod for Game 1 on Saturday, and the Blackhawks will be significantly better off with him in net, according to Dylan Strome.
Dylan Strome on Corey Crawford: "He's solid. He just calms us all down. We feel very confident when he's in the net." #Blackhawks— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) July 30, 2020
The Oilers goalie situation remains fluid. Mikko Koskinen started the Oilers’ 4-1 exhibition victory against the Flames on Tuesday with Mike Smith coming out for the back half. Neither goalie did anything to trigger alarms, leaving the decision very much in the hands of Edmonton coach Dave Tippett as to which goalie will start against the Blackhawks.
Koskinen closed the regular season with three starts in seven days in early March, facing 139 shots while allowing just five goals (.964 save percentage). That doesn’t include the 10 saves Koskinen made while relieving Smith on March 5 after the Blackhawks chased Smith from the game with four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 win. Smith displayed his typical, calm demeanor after being yanked:
At 38, Smith is the veteran of the duo with a trip with the Coyotes to the 2012 Western Conference Final on his career highlights. That run is virtually gone from the rearview mirror at this point, however, and Smith’s most recent postseason appearance was a five-game, first-round exit with the Flames in 2019.
Koskinen’s regular season numbers were better than Smith’s (save for Smith’s league-best shorthanded save percentage), but the 32-year-old Finnish goalie has never played in a postseason game before and just finished his second full season as an NHL goalie.
Neither option is ideal for the Oilers: it’s an unproven postseason commodity or an aging veteran whose best seasons are behind him. Our colleagues at Copper and Blue have penned a pair of articles, one is in favor of Koskinen while the other makes the argument for Smith. Both goalies were at their best while shorthanded this season, something we mentioned during Wednesday’s discussion of the special teams matchup. But each netminder remains fallible during five-on-five play, the part of the game Chicago will likely need to control if it hopes to advance to the next round.