After a 142-day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL will return to action on Saturday to kick off its 24-team Return to Play tournament. Eight teams from each conference will play in a five-game series for a chance to secure a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the Blackhawks are one of them.
Let's get this out of the way with right now: While this is technically still the 2019-20 season, everything that happened four and a half months ago is irrelevant. This will be as unpredictable a postseason as we've ever seen, and that's saying something considering all four division winners failed to get out of the first round last season.
The Blackhawks were given new life after sneaking in as the No. 12 seed in the Western Conference, where they will square off against the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers. It figures to be one of the most entertaining series of the postseason.
If you're a Blackhawks fan, there are reasons to be optimistic about a potential upset. But it certainly won't be easy.
Here are three reasons why the Blackhawks could knock off the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers:
1. Blackhawks were the better team at 5-on-5 this season
No team in this tournament had a worse goal differential at 5-on-5 this season than the Oilers, who were a minus-16. The Blackhawks, by comparison, had an even goal differential.
Outside of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, the Oilers are where they are in the standings because of their special teams. They had the No. 1-ranked power play (29.5 percent) and No. 2-ranked penalty kill (84.4 percent) for a special teams sum of 113.9, which is the second-best total in NHL history.
The Blackhawks will give themselves a much better chance of advancing if they stay out of the penalty box as much as possible and keep the game at even strength.
2. The emergence of Kirby Dach, third line
The buzz around training camp in Chicago has been Dach, who looks bigger, stronger and more confident after mentally and physically recharging from hockey for the first time in about 18 months. He looks rejuvenated and ready for a larger role, which we already saw in Wednesday's 4-0 exhibition win over the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues when he logged two shifts on the penalty kill and found himself on the first power-play unit.
Dach is centering the third line with Drake Caggiula and Alex DeBrincat, who scored 41 goals last season. Patrick Kane is going to be Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is going to be Jonathan Toews. Dach and the third line could be the difference-maker in the series, especially if the first two lines can cancel each other out.
3. Corey Crawford
The Blackhawks ranked dead last in multiple defensive categories at even strength this season, including scoring chances against per 60 minutes (30.4), inner slot shots against (7.8), slot passes against (14.7), cycle chances against (9.6) and expected goals against (3.32), according to Sportlogiq. Their defensive issues are well-documented.
The reason the Blackhawks stayed above water is because of their goaltending. They had the sixth-best team save percentage (.913) thanks to Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner, who was shipped to Vegas at the trade deadline.
From Jan. 1 and on, only four goaltenders with at least 15 or more starts had a better save percentage (.928) and goals saved above average (10.9) than Crawford. He masked a lot of the team’s defensive flaws, which is why it was a significant storyline when Crawford missed the first 12 days of training camp because he had tested positive for COVID-19.
On the flip side, the Oilers ranked No. 14 in team save percentage (.906). But there's a glaring discrepancy: Edmonton ranked No. 1 in penalty kill save percentage (.906) and 25th in 5-on-5 save percentage (.912), which further strengthens bullet point No. 1.
The Blackhawks certainly have the edge in goal, and as long as No. 50 is between the pipes, they'll have a chance at upsetting the Oilers.