NHL

Oilers' McDavid, Nurse size up new playoff format ahead of potential Hawks clash

Two days after the NHL revealed its return-to-play plan, Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid and defenceman Darnell Nurse were already looking ahead to potentially playing in the 24-team Stanley Cup format.

Edmonton slated to face Chicago in best-of-5 series under new 24-team plan

Should the NHL return to action, Connor McDavid's Edmonton Oilers would take on the Chicago Blackhawks in the 24-team Stanley Cup playoff format unveiled by the NHL on Tuesday. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

During his downtime in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Darnell Nurse tuned into the Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance for a dose of inspiration.

The Edmonton Oilers rearguard plans to draw on motivational lessons from Air Jordan in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I think that's the perfect example — to see his mindset in a lot of those games – of creating your own environment, creating your own fire," Nurse said Thursday on a virtual news conference conducted via Zoom.

"That's a test that everyone in this situation is going to have to go through, having the ability to create your own excitement."

WATCH | Nurse remains motivated by opportunity to win Stanley Cup:

Edmonton Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse says even though they will be competing in an empty arena, the opportunity to win a Stanley Cup should be enough to motivate players. 1:08

There will be no crowd due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The seats, empty. The energy in the building, absent.

"Yeah, there's no fans there," Nurse said. "And yeah, you might be in a hub city. But there's an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. I think that should be enough motivation to get anyone going.

"There's a lot of challenges. There are a lot of things that aren't ideal that come along with this situation. But that's the world. The world is in that position right now. So the Stanley Cup is all the fire you should need."

On Tuesday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league and NHLPA agreed to a return-to-play format, which concludes the remainder of the regular season and begins a 24-team playoff plan.

The new plan would see the top-4 clubs in the Eastern and Western Conference play two abbreviated round-robin tournaments to determine playoff seeding.

The other eight teams in each conference would play a best-of-five 'play-in' series — No. 5 versus No. 12, No. 6 versus No. 11, No. 7 versus No. 10, and No. 8 versus No. 9 — to determine the 16 clubs left standing for the playoffs.

WATCH | 2-minute recap of Bettman's press conference:

Commissioner Bettman outlined the NHL's 24-team playoff format, and the draft lottery. 2:11

If fans were allowed in the building in Edmonton, Chicago forward Patrick Kane would have no doubt experienced the wrath of the Oiler faithful given the carnage inflicted over the years.

Through 43 career games against the Oilers, Kane has 56 points. And in the post-season against any club, Kane is a certified gamer with 123 points in 127 career appearances and a Conn Smythe Trophy to boot.

The Chicago faithful have reason to hope for an upset — if Kane can keep up the torrid scoring pace and the rest of the Blackhawks can somehow limit the damage inflicted by Leon Draisaitl and captain Connor McDavid.

Holland approves of format

"I'm happy it's a best-of-five," Oilers general manager Ken Holland said. "There might be a little bit of rust in the first game or two, but over the course of a five-game series it's an opportunity to — if you get off to a sluggish start — get back in the series.

"If you have a bad first game, you've still got to lose two more versus how quickly a best-of-three can go."

In spite of the Kane factor, the Oilers (37-25-9) will enter the series — whenever it happens — as the undeniable favourites against the Blackhawks (32-30-8).

On Thursday, McDavid, who was part of the NHL/NHLPA's Return to Play Committee, and Nurse addressed the merit of the 24-team format and whether a hub city approach would provide an advantage for the hometown franchise among other topics.

WATCH | McDavid, Nurse discuss polarizing return-to-play format:

Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who was part of the NHL/NHLPA's Return to Play Committee, and his teammate Darnell Nurse discuss the creation of the NHL's 24-team playoff plan. 1:57

The Oilers led the league in power-play efficiency at a whopping 29.5 per cent, and now they have the services of a healthy Mike Green as the quarterback on the point.

As for the penalty kill, they ranked second behind only San Jose at 84.4 per cent.

"We've had that same power play for probably two years now, and that helps a lot," McDavid said. "We've had a lot of success on specialty teams, and we'll probably need to be a little bit better five-on-five."

Draisaitl a driving force

The difference maker could well be Draisaitl, the 2019/20 Art Ross Trophy winner with 43 goals and 67 assists for 110 points in 71 appearances. The 6-foot-2, 208-pounder is a beast to move off the puck and one of the best pure passers in the league.

During Thursday's conference, a reporter from Germany asked McDavid how he benefits from playing with Draisaitl.

"He gives me nice passes, so that definitely helps me out," McDavid said. "A lot was made of us playing together or not playing together, and that gives our team a different look."

After Christmas, head coach Dave Tippett assigned McDavid and Draisaitl their own lines, and the Oilers became way more challenging to defend with the scoring spread around.

"As a general manager, and if you're a fan of the Edmonton Oilers, we're very fortunate to have two great players who are 23 and 24 years of age and, really, probably just coming into their prime years as athletes," Holland said. "They've been versatile. Obviously, Leon can move to the left wing and we can play them together as a line."

And when that happens — even minus fans in the building — the atmosphere will no doubt be electric.

About the Author

Vicki Hall

Freelance writer

Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

With files from CBC Sports

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