While the Central Division provided all the drama with two front runners bounced early, the West stuck to the more predictable narrative. The Anaheim Ducks came out and effectively neutralized the Calgary Flames just as nearly everyone predicted ahead of the series. While the Flames came in hot leading up to the Playoffs, they ran ice cold when they met the Ducks in the first round.
The Ducks hard hitting style is not for the faint of heart, and they refuse to take it easy on smaller players or skill forwards. If you lace up your skates and put on an opposing sweater, you are fair game anytime the Ducks get within striking distance. Many players try to outrun those hits, but the Ducks only operate in one mode and that’s open season on everyone and even the fastest players wear down and find themselves on the receiving end of Ryan Kesler, or Corey Perry‘s wrath.
For the Oilers, they will be in for a new experience after jousting with the Ducks geriatric neighbors, the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are a different breed even though their moniker is considerably more menacing than a cast away former Disney Duck. That is as far as the fear factor goes, as the Sharks are the NHL’s equivalent to Casper the Friendly Ghost in comparison to the down and dirty Ducks.
The Ducks may have their hands full with the faster, more highly skilled Edmonton Oilers, but there is little doubt the hits will come early and often as they set out to test this young team’s mettle. Specifically, the physical and mental toughness of their young captain, Connor McDavid. While he might be rattled by the Ducks playoff persona (think their standard regular season edginess dialed up to Freddy Kruger) at first, McDavid is far too talented to be neutralized by big bodies and some not safe for public consumption barking by the opposition. The Ducks are going to have to pick a different target and hope that the Oilers are the one man team many have claimed them to be all season long.
Is the key to ending the Oilers bid early McDavid, or will the Ducks meet their demise with the aid of his supporting cast as the Sharks did?
— NHL (@NHL) April 24, 2020
Anaheim Ducks (46-23-13)
First Round Opponent: Calgary Flames (4-0)
The Ducks have been down this road several times in recent years, and they won the Stanley Cup in 2007 early in the careers of Getzlaf and Perry during Randy Carlyle‘s first stint in Anaheim. They’ve been working to get back to the Cup Final ever since, but the closest they got was the Western Conference Final in 2015. They ultimately lost to the Chicago Blackhawks after having them on the ropes at 3-1 on their way to winning their most recent Cup since 2010 (sixth overall). While their Cup window might be closer to closing than they might like, the Ducks seem to sharpen their teeth with each season that ends in disappointment.
Kesler was not a part of that Cup winning team in ’07, but came close losing in the Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins during his time with Vancouver, so he is still chasing that first taste of hockey immortality. This season he is joined by a former Cup winner who earned his on the other side in ’15, Antoine Vermette was brought in for his faceoff prowess adding depth up the middle and bringing that mentality that can only be earned by coming up on the right side of a Cup Final. Apparently, his Ducks mates have rubbed off as well, as the once mild-mannered Vermette made headlines this season for a 10-game suspension for making contact with an official after disagreeing on a puck drop. By Kesler and Perry’s standards, it was a minor offense, but the league has very strict rules in place to protect on ice officials and Vermette made the contact.
That incident is long behind him, and he is undoubtedly looking to raise the Cup once more as his long and successful career is winding down, as would Getzlaf and Perry. The rest of the team that has been on this ride without a Cup on their resume will also be looking to join the club.
While the Ducks best offensive weapons are no longer as consistent as they were even a few years ago, Getzlaf, Perry, and Kesler are still capable of putting on a show. As they face off against the Oilers electrifying arsenal of scorers, they’re going to need to turn back a few chapters to keep pace, but if that fails it’s a good bet they will use their size and ability to pin players in at the boards with heavy hits meant to take their opponents off their game. It’s a tactic that has served them well against more experienced teams than the Oilers, and this round should prove no different. It will be on Edmonton to combat the Ducks attack or escape and capitalize on any mistakes that may come with facing a younger, faster Oilers team.
John Gibson has assumed control of the Ducks crease since Frederik Andersen was sent to Toronto during the offseason. The Ducks put their faith in the young and still mostly untested netminder who has been inconsistent in his time with Anaheim. It will be on Gibson to stay sharp and prove himself as he goes up against Cam Talbot who has put up solid numbers (.919 Save Percentage and 2.39 Goals Against Average with a 42-22-8 record this year) since arriving in Edmonton two years ago after a long stint as Henrik Lundqvist‘s backup in New York.
Gibson broke out in his rookie season with a stellar playoff performance in 2013-14 (.919 Save Percentage and 2.70 Goals Against Average with 2 wins). At 20-years-old Gibson was the third netminder behind Jonas Hiller and Andersen, but he stepped in and exceeded expectations in the four games he played. He was expected to challenge Andersen for the starters job the following season, but Andersen ultimately got the bulk of the starts. There was much speculation as to which netminder would ultimately win the job ahead of the Expansion Draft this coming summer in Vegas, until the Ducks pulled the trigger shipping Andersen north of the border.
For the Ducks their biggest strength is not the core forward group, but their blue line.They have the defensive depth to help counteract the Oilers top two lines and tilt the ice in their favor as the Oilers defensive depth is likely to see its first real test of these playoffs with Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, and Kevin Bieksa.
Edmonton Oilers (47-26-9)
First Round Opponent: San Jose Sharks (4-2)
While the Oilers don’t have the most depth on the back end, they can more than make up for it with their impressive stable of young stars ready to rise up on the league’s biggest stage. Led by McDavid, this team is likely to be in the thick of a lot of playoff runs before he hangs up his skates. Two of his teammates have also impressed in the early stages of these playoffs with Oscar Klefbom anchoring their blue line and Talbot shoring up their crease.
Apart from McDavid who will always draw the spotlight, Klefbom and Talbot both performed at a high level in their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. Having said that, there is a significant drop off once you get past Klefbom, Andrej Sekera, and Adam Larsson. Darnell Nurse has moments of clarity, but could still use a couple years of experience at 21, the same could be said for Matt Benning (22) though his learning curve doesn’t appear to be quite as steep. Kris Russell is another story entirely, as his best games are well in the past and even those leave something to be desired on a team with elite level talent everywhere else.
If there is anywhere that the Oilers could be exposed, it likely begins and ends with the blue line. If the top three defensemen have a great series, the shortcomings on the other half will hardly be a part of the conversation, but if any one of the top three are injured or intimidated by the Ducks brand of hockey it could send the Oilers back to the drawing board.
The top storyline in Edmonton is all too often McDavid, as you would expect, but speculation that this is a one man show simply doesn’t give the young captain enough credit. McDavid, like two young captains that came before him (Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews), may be the bright shiny new talent, but part of his greatness is his ability to raise the level of the players around him. He has earned the respect of the guys in the room and on the opposing benches because he is one of those rare talents that can coax the best out of players who only dreamed of playing on that level.
Cast offs like Zack Kassian and Adam Larsson have gone from bit players to key roles around McDavid and they have risen to the challenge. Players who had yet to fully live up to the high expectations as former first round picks are finally starting to prove themselves like Jordan Eberle (22nd overall in 2008), and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (1st overall in 2011). While others like Nail Yakupov (1st overall in 2012) and Taylor Hall (1st overall 2010) were finally moved after McDavid’s arrival.
Perhaps, it took a player of McDavid’s caliber to drive home the point that not all top picks are created equal and the Oilers were better off shopping the duo to build around McDavid. While Yakupov underwhelmed across the board, Hall was simply not the right fit with McDavid destined to take on a leadership role early. A clash was likely on the horizon and McDavid was always going to win that round.
The Oilers have found balance with the addition of Milan Lucic rounding out the second line with Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle and he will likely play a pivotal role in terms of giving the Oilers some much needed grit against a team made of sandpaper, big teeth, and a penchant for brutal hits all over the ice. Lucic originated that role with the Bruins and has the mean streak to take Kesler to task and protect McDavid if necessary. However, at 6′ 1″ and 200 pounds McDavid is more than capable of standing up for himself.
This likely won’t be the last time these teams clash, but it won’t be long before they are ships passing in the night as the Ducks core ages and the Oilers top guns ascend to their place at the top of the heap. Whether the Oilers get there this year or not, the day will come when they are the last team standing. When they do, they will reign over the rest of the league until they catch up or a new ‘Next One’ arrives on the scene.
One thing is certain, there is a place holder in the Hall of Fame right next to another Oiler’s great, Wayne Gretzky and that spot already has McDavid’s fingerprints all over it. It was never going to be a matter of whether he’ll get there, just how much hardware he’ll collect on the way.
Prediction: Ducks in six
While the Oilers have been nothing short of impressive since McDavid landed, they have one weak spot that the Ducks will likely exploit. That is their blue line depth. The forwards are going to do their damage, but the Ducks will be merciless as they try to take them off their game and force the defense to work harder to move the puck effectively through the middle of the ice. While the Oilers have a couple of defensemen that are up to the challenge and can drive play to their offense, their 20+ minutes of playing time is going to feel like 40 if the Ducks have anything to say about it.
If they roll with three of four players eating up the bulk of the minutes from the back end, the Ducks will undoubtedly do everything in their power to wear them down with rough rides anytime there is an opportunity, and they won’t limit the hits to the back end. While they might struggle to catch McDavid they will almost certainly look to neutralize Lucic, or at the very least goad him in to removing himself from the equation by taking penalties. This would not be a far fetched scenario for the former Bruin who has a reputation for getting drawn into tustles at inopportune moments.
While the Ducks will undoubtedly have a plan, that’s not to say the Oilers couldn’t find the ice tilting in their favor. The Ducks have two defensemen returning from injuries in Fowler and Vatanen, if either of them returns at less than 100% or is held out, the Oilers can certainly exploit that weakness and it could offset their own lack of depth on the back end.
If the Ducks are not healthy on the blue line, the Oilers are in a much better position to turn this series offensively speaking with Getzlaf and Perry’s consistency issues over the past few seasons. The Ducks have been down this road before and they remember what it’s like to be young and hungry, they will use every weapon at their disposal to put the Oilers on their heels and keep them there, and if Vatanen and Fowler come back good as new their ability to sustain at high intensity levels for sixty minutes and that pitbull mentality they wield so well should give them the edge. Barely.
This will be a true test for both teams as neither one is going to lay down and concede no matter the score. This just might be one of the toughest battles in the second round, and perhaps these playoffs.
Whoever comes away from this series will likely walk away with the Western Conference title as well provided there is anyone left standing once the dust settles on this one.