You could say this about any game or series, but special teams play a crucial role in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Winning that battle could be the difference between moving on and going home, especially in a shortened five-game series.
The Blackhawks are going to have their hands full against the Edmonton Oilers in the qualifying round, which begins Saturday after a 142-day hockey hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You don't have to look too deep to see why the Oilers secured the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference.
The Oilers had a minus-13 goal differential at even strength during the regular season, which ranks dead last among the 24 teams in the NHL's Return to Play tournament. Where they separated themselves from the pack is in the special teams department.
The Oilers finished the season with the No. 1-ranked power-play unit (29.5 percent) and No. 2-ranked penalty kill unit (84.4 percent). That's a special teams sum of 113.9, which is good for second-best in NHL history.
Since the league began tracking power play stats in 1977, only three teams have had a better success rate than the Oilers’ 29.5 percent:
1. Montreal Canadiens: 31.9 percent (1977-78)
2. New York Islanders: 31.4 percent (1977-78)
3. New York Islanders: 31.2 percent (1978-79)
Not bad company.
The two players most responsible for the Oilers' offensive success are Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, who finished the season No. 1 and 2 in scoring, respectively. But they're especially lethal on the man advantage.
McDavid ranks first among all skaters in controlled entries (8.2) and fourth in offensive zone possession time (1:07), according to Sportlogiq. Draisaitl ranks eighth in controlled entries (6.6) and seventh in offensive zone possession time (1:03). They have the puck on their stick a lot.
The good news is, the Blackhawks finished the season tied for eighth with a penalty kill rate of 82.1 percent one year after having the worst percentage in 30 years. Goaltending played a big role in that, but the personnel and structure certainly improved.
In their one and only exhibition game against the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, the Blackhawks went 4-for-4 on the penalty kill and even cashed in twice on the power play. That's an encouraging sign going into a play-in series against the Oilers, given their special teams success.
The top priority for the Blackhawks, first and foremost, will be to stay out of the penalty box and limit the amount of opportunities Draisaitl and McDavid get on the power play. But when they do inevitably get their chances, the Blackhawks feel confident in their penalty kill to come through in key moments.
"We feel pretty good," Brandon Saad said following Wednesday's 4-0 win over the Blues. "Tonight was a good test. They had a great power play all year too. I know it wasn't a real game, but just to get back in the groove of things, making our reads, getting comfortable with our linemates, that's something we've got to get comfortable with again.
"When you don't play a game for five months or so, you get out of rhythm, but it's nice to see it in a game a few times. We know they have a lethal power play on Saturday, so that's going to be a big part of it, being disciplined and able to get the job done when we're out there."