In anticipating how the matchups in the Blackhawks-Oilers best-of-five play-in series will pan out, it's hard not to picture the Hawks' third line having a major opportunity to break through.
If Edmonton's top line matches up with Chicago's, you can expect Jonathan Toews to limit NHL superstar Connor McDavid's productivity as he's done in the past.
If the two squads' second lines go head-to-head, you can picture each scoring a few goals. Leon Draisaitl — centering the Oilers' second combo — led the league in points (110) in the regular season. He also has speedy and skilled Kailer Yamamoto on his right wing, who scored just over a minute into Edmonton's exhibition game against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.
The Hawks' second line of Alex Nylander--Dylan Strome--Patrick Kane was on fire at the team's Phase 3 training camp. Strome is a dependable second-line center, Nylander has some serious play-making ability and just needs to play more responsibly in his own end, and of course "Showtime" is waiting for his postseason call time.
This is where the door to opportunity swings wide open for the Blackhawks' third line. Chicago's third combo of Alex DeBrincat--Kirby Dach--Drake Caggiula — that we saw in Wednesday's 4-0 exhibition win over the Blues — has more offensive talent than their likely counterpart for the series: Andreas Athanasiou--Riley Sheahan--Josh Archibald.
DeBrincat in a down season had more points (45) than Sheahan and Archibald combined (36). To be fair, DeBrincat did log a lot of time among Chicago's top-six forwards this year though.
If DeBrincat is able to find his offensive game, he will be a serious scoring threat for the Oilers. He had played on the top line with Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews at training camp but Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton swapped him with Dominik Kubalik for Wednesday's exhibition game. If Kubalik is back on the third line for the series, he's an even bigger scoring threat after scoring 30 goals as a rookie this year in the regular season and picking two power-play goals and an assist on Wednesday.
Third line center Kirby Dach, 19, spent much of his first NHL regular season finding his game and adjusting to the big league as a teenager. His upgrade in muscles, playmaking and confidence was the talk of training camp. On Thursday, Colliton said Dach was one of the Hawks' best defensive players.
During Thursday's Zoom call with the media from Edmonton, Dach credited each of Chicago's lines with the ability to be the difference-maker for the series before agreeing with the third line's ability to do so.
"I just feel that with Drake, myself and Kitty Cat, we’ve got a good thing going," Dach said. "We might not have scored last night but we had chances. I think we’re going to work out the kinks and hopefully we are going to be that difference-maker in the series. All three of us want to be impact players and help us. Obviously for Drake and I, this is a little more personal. This is my hometown and this being his ex-team. I think we have a good chance of being that difference-maker."
That leaves Caggiula. The feisty winger, who was traded to Chicago from Edmonton in December of 2018, is certain to provide energy and possibly some goals against some former teammates.
"I think the playoffs, you see maybe not the household names are the guys that end up coming through big in the big moments. Your depth is what helps you win playoff games," Caggiula said. "First and second lines they may cancel each other out. From there it’s how much depth do you have and how much can the other part of your lineup contribute. We have a really good blend on our line, a lot of different options and a lot of different looks between the three of us. We can definitely set ourselves up for success. If we just play our game I think we’re going to create a pretty big impact for ourselves."
Caggiula has an opportunity not only to impact the series for the Hawks, but to display the effectiveness of his game on a big stage to help earn a new contract from Chicago in the offseason when he becomes a restricted free agent.
"Playoffs are tough hockey, dirty hockey, and I like to play in those types of games, those types of areas," Caggiula said. "I think playoff hockey suits my game very well and I just want to make sure I do whatever I can to showcase that I can play this kind of style and play in these big games."
His wrecking ball style can give the Blackhawks a pick-me-up when they need one and potentially get in the Oilers' heads, which could cause them to spend some time in the penalty box.
"There are definitely times in a game when you get a little bit overheated, and maybe you cross the line, and that’s where guys end up taking penalties. But I think what makes me a successful player is being able to walk on that line and not cross it; get under guys’ skin and hopefully push them to the point where they take penalties instead of myself." Caggiula said.
With personal ties and the desire and tools to be the difference-maker, we'll see how the third line fares at the start of the series on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. CT.