Why Blackhawks won't be at a disadvantage facing Oilers in Edmonton

Why Blackhawks won't be at a disadvantage facing Oilers in Edmonton

The NHL and NHL Players' Association took a significant step forward on Monday, announcing that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement on the Return to Play plan and Collective Bargaining Agreement extension that also includes transition rules. It's not official until the owners and players ratify the entire package, but there's little reason to believe it won't get approved.

If all goes as planned, the qualifying round will begin on Aug. 1 in the two hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto. Each conference will stay in their respective regions, which means the Blackhawks will be anchored down in Edmonton.

The NHL was originally planning to send the Western Conference teams to the Eastern Conference hub and the Eastern Conference teams to the Western Conference hub to avoid giving a Return to Play club any sort of competitive advantage, but the league and players decided against that due to the geographical complications.

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So will the Blackhawks be at a disadvantage in their five-game play-in series against the Oilers on the Oilers' home surface? The simple answer is, no.

For one, there will be no fans in attendance and that's half the battle in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Blackhawks may be considered the road team as the No. 12 seed taking on the No. 5 seed, but the only thing that's going to be different throughout the series is their jersey color.

Where the home-ice advantage would really come into play is off the ice, but the Oilers won't exactly be in the comfort of their own environment.

All 12 teams are required to stay inside the bubble — which the NHL is calling its "Phase 4 Secure Zone" — and any individual that leaves without permission may be subject to consequences up to and including removal. The team could also be punished in the form of hefty fines and/or loss of draft picks. That should be enough for players to take things seriously, in case there's any temptation.

But the overall point is, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid and the rest of the Oilers won't have the luxury of sleeping in their own bed or being in the comfort of their own home during off-days. They have to pack multiple suitcases and stay inside the designated boundaries that includes hotels, dining destinations, the arena, practice facilities and demarcated areas (indoor and outdoor), just like everyone else. That's how life would have been for the Blackhawks had Chicago been chosen as a hub city.

In some ways, this could actually play in the Blackhawks' favor. There aren't any expectations when you're the road team going into a game, let alone a series in this unique situation. The Blackhawks had nothing to lose to begin with, considering their playoff chances were all but over prior to the NHL suspending its season on March 12 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even though they had a better win percentage at home, the Blackhawks played some of their best hockey this season when they were on the road, so it wouldn't be surprising if they upset the Oilers by sticking to their road mentality.

“On the road, you’re kind of naturally an underdog," Connor Murphy said in February. "Going into those games, you just seem to rally with each other even more and have some more of that desperation, knowing they could gain momentum with a goal and or a big chance. When you have a little bit of that underdog mentality, I think that can be good, and it gives a little more fight and bite in your game.”

What it will take for Blackhawks to close out Oilers in Game 4

What it will take for Blackhawks to close out Oilers in Game 4

The Blackhawks have been in this position before.

No, I'm not talking about the dynasty era days when they were one game away from closing out a postseason series. This is a different team and different circumstances.

I'm talking about knowing what it's like coming off an emotional win and responding the right way in the next one.

After stunning the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the Blackhawks had a letdown performance in Game 2. They had a bounce-back effort in Game 3 thanks to some late-game heroics, putting themselves in position on Friday to win their first postseason series for the first time since the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

And if they want to do that, the Blackhawks must learn from their approach in Game 2.

"They have that killer instinct when they're down a game, and now they're on the brink of elimination, so that was an important lesson for our team," Brandon Saad said. "We have to match that intensity going into [Friday], knowing their backs are against the wall and we've got to have that same mentality against them."

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Head coach Jeremy Colliton said after Game 1 that he expected the Oilers to come out desperate in Game 2 and they did. But the Blackhawks didn't match that intensity.

That can't be the case in Game 4.

"It’ll probably be their best game of the series, so we have to prepare for that," Colliton said. "Hopefully we've learned a lesson from our approach in Game 2. It’s not just going to happen. We have to be ready from the start, have the details, have a work ethic away from the puck. We need everyone going to have a good chance to win."

The game plan for the Blackhawks to win Game 4 is simple: stay out of the penalty box, capitalize on their power-play opportunities and keep the game at even strength as much as possible. It's easier said than done, but that's the formula to beating the Oilers.

"We know when your back's against the wall, it's a do-or-die situation," Saad said. "So for us, it's just having that same mentality, not looking at it like we have a lead in the series but — just like last game — putting in the hard work for 60 minutes, knowing you're going to have some success with doing the right things and sticking with it all game, and that's what happened last game. Just matching that intensity and knowing it's going to take a full 60 minutes of hard work."

What having no fans at postseason games is like for Blackhawks' Drake Caggiula

What having no fans at postseason games is like for Blackhawks' Drake Caggiula

Watching at home, the NHL's 24-team postseason hasn't disappointed at all. The games are a fast-paced, intense display of high-end talent like in any postseason and we're still just in the qualifying round.

The league putting tarps over the seats and even adding canned crowd noise helps you forget live fans have been taken out of the equation.

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For the players on the ice, sometimes the absence of the game's fans is hard to ignore.

Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula has experienced the fanless games as both a player and spectator. He played in Game 1 and 3 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Oilers, but missed Game 2 after being suspended for an illegal check to the head of Edmonton forward Tyler Ennis.

Related: What being teammates with Connor McDavid was like for Blackhawks' Drake Caggiula

"It's definitely different watching or even playing without fans," Caggiula said earlier in the week. "You see a mad scramble in front of the net and it's pretty quiet out there and typically that's when fans are oohing and ahhing and cheering and chaos ensues and sometimes you can build off the momentum. 

"Maybe you're down a goal or two and you score a goal and the crowd gets into it and you can kind of feed off that energy and obviously that's not there, you got to create your own energy, you got to find that within your own locker room. Sometimes that can be difficult, especially if the game gets a little bit out of reach. You have to find ways to keep yourself involved and keep your energy up and find that from within and not be looking for the others (to)."

The Blackhawks lead the series against the Oilers 2-1 with Game 4 scheduled for Friday at 5:45 p.m. CT.