It’s not difficult to see the connection between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers entering the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. Both have legitimate reason to feel mistreated by the format chosen to crown a champion, and after one night both teams are failing to pass the tests they never really deserved in the first place.
The No. 5 seeds in their conferences entering the 24-team expanded postseason bracket fell short in their respective Game 1s on the opening day of competition after the season’s restart. And while the paths to those curtain-raising losses took on far different looks, both the Penguins and Oilers face the same realities — which are plummeting odds to actually qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now in the driver’s seat to replace the two cold-hard shoe-ins for the traditional tournament back in March when the season was initially put on pause, are two teams previously lottery-bound in the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks, who both would have required miracles down the stretch for even a sniff of the playoffs.
Progress earned through around 85 percent of an 82-game grind erased in one game.
This is what happens when you invite Cinderella to the dance.
Now for the Penguins and Oilers, the challenge is to win three of their next four games, or their legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations, and all the work put in to preparing for this opportunity, will be dashed in no more than a week of competition.
It’s serious pressure, now, on two teams many expected to cruise through the qualification. And while they both have the talent to swing the momentum of their series back in their favor, there might be a gulf between them when gauging levels of confidence.
Despite the loss, 3-2 in overtime, everything that made the Penguins into back-to-back Stanley Cup champions still seemed to ring true three years later. They were clearly the better team in Game 1 versus the Habs from a talent perspective with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still tilting the scales, they remained composed throughout despite falling behind early, and they worked back into a favorable position to win with all the postseason know-how built into their hockey DNA.
It should have been Pittsburgh’s game. That third goal just didn’t come. Surely they will have no trouble recognizing that.
Edmonton, meanwhile, will have no such information to draw from.
Despite the relative chasm between them in the standings, as well as the glut of power at the top of the Oilers’ lineup with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Blackhawks quite clearly established themselves as the better team in their 6-4 Game 1 victory, seeming to separate themselves in every facet of the game.
Chicago’s goaltending was superior, and so was its special teams, while not one group exploited the advantages found everywhere on the rink more than the Blackhawks’ second line of Jonathan Toews, Dominik Kubalik and Brandon Saad, who combined for 10 points.
What’s more, the championship mettle the Penguins will rely on in their efforts to claw back versus Montreal, well, that will belong to the Blackhawks in the No. 5-No. 12 clash out West.
Whereas the Oilers will have all the pressure and scrutiny on them with just a single postseason series victory in the McDavid era, here’s the core of the three-time Stanley Cup champion and previously-dynastic Blackhawks, returning with a free roll at the high-stakes table.
The situation has been upgraded to critical for two teams who, based on regular season results, don’t belong on the same rink with their opponent.
There’s reason to believe both can rescue this.
But perhaps more so with the one.
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