How about those No. 12 seeds, eh? But in the wake of the Chicago Blackhawks’ stunning victory and subsequent 2-1 lead in their qualifying series over the Edmonton Oilers, the number that really stands out is three.
The Hawks are leading this series and could oust the Oilers in their own arena Friday evening because of a confluence of factors. The Blackhawks are getting some very surprising contributions, both up front and on a much-maligned defense and are proving that despite being the second-worst regular-season team in this year’s playoff tournament, that they can run with the Oilers in a short series. And the Oilers are proving, at least so far, that despite an abundance of talent they’re not diverse enough, nor are they ready for prime time in the playoffs.
But as much as anything, this series has turned on the play of two No. 3 overall picks chosen 13 years apart. The first, of course, is Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. During this series, Toews has re-emerged as a dominant force at both ends of the ice. Not only does Toews lead the Hawks with four goals, he’s singlehandedly destroying the Oilers in the faceoff circle, winning 57.7 percent of his draws. It was his faceoff win over Leon Draisaitl, then his willingness to go to the net, that gave the Blackhawks the go-ahead goal with 76 seconds left in the game. The other is Kirby Dach, the 2019 third-overall pick who has proven to be a major factor in the series. He leads the Blackhawks in assists with four and has been a huge contributor in all areas. He assisted on Toews’ 5-on-3 goal in the first period and knocked Oilers forward Tyler Ennis out of the game with a clean, hard hit in the second period.
(Ironically, the Blackhawks’ top three centers are No. 3 overall picks. Dylan Strome was taken in that spot in 2015 by the Arizona Coyotes.)
It’s interesting to note that the Oilers have actually won more faceoffs overall in this series, largely because they’ve been able to take advantage of Dach and Strome in the dots. But Toews has been a beast, particularly in important draws. In Game 1, he picked Connor McDavid clean on the draw that led to the Blackhawks taking a 3-1 lead. On the game-winner Wednesday night, Leon Draisaitl was the victim.
“Faceoffs aren’t all worth the same amount,” said Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton. “We have one of the best in the game in Jonathan Toews. He finds a way. It’s probably the purest 50-50 battle there is and he’s one of the best at it. It’s important for our team.”
As for Dach, he suffered a shoulder injury in the pre-season prospect tournament and that set him back in his rookie season, but he joined the Blackhawks after a three-game conditioning stint in the minors and at one point in November, had a five-game point streak as an 18-year-old. He has been using his big body to his advantage in this series, both by creating space for himself in the offensive zone and playing a physical style. And Dach may be a rookie, but he’s surrounded himself with veteran winners. He lived in teammate Brent Seabrooke’s basement this season and worked with Kane during the pause caused by the pandemic. And now he’s playing with Kane on the Hawks’ second unit, giving the Blackhawks some serious depth and logging big minutes. In fact, the only forward who has played more in this series than Dach is Kane.
“Kirby got better as the year went on,” Colliton said. “He loves the responsibility and he thrives on it. We knew how he looked in (the second) training camp that he was ready to take a bigger role here. And he’s been great. He’s been as advertised.”
And in part because of that, this series has not been as advertised. On paper, this looked to have the makings of the least competitive series in this year’s playoffs, but the Blackhawks are getting contributions from everywhere in their lineup and are taking advantage of an Oilers team that has at times lacked discipline and looked dreadful in their own end. With the No. 12 Montreal Canadiens on the verge of knocking the No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins out of the playoffs with their win in Game 3 Wednesday night, a 2020 that has been nothing even resembling normal could take an even stranger turn with victories by the Canadiens and Blackhawks Friday.
And if that happens, of course we all know what comes next. Either the Penguins or the Oilers will win the draft lottery and land Alexis Lafreniere with the first overall pick.