On May 26, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman outlined the league’s Return to Play plan that included a 24-team format – top-four teams in each conference square off in a round-robin tournament to determine their seeding while the remaining eight seeds compete in a play-in series for the final four seeds. The Blackhawks were the last team to get in in the Western Conference, slated to face the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers.
Nothing is official as of yet, as Patrick Kane noted on Thursday, but there’s little reason to believe both the NHL and NHL Players’ Association won’t come to an eventual agreement if health officials give clearance for hockey to return. But even though it’s not finalized, that doesn’t mean the preliminary preparations haven’t begun.
Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton and his staff are expected to have, in total, approximately two months to size up the Oilers and put together a game plan. So will Oilers coach Dave Tippett and his staff. But the attention won’t all be on their opponent.
“For now, the focus has been our own players and their development and how can we improve within ourselves watching video of our own game,” said Colliton, who has communicated with his players and staff during the quarantine through phone calls, text messages and video chats. “That’s how training camp will be, too. But as we get closer to that series, we’ll dig deeper and make sure we’ve covered all the bases.
“The coaches are going to absorb every bit of information that we can, but then we have to filter it. We only want to give the players the information that they need so that they can play on instinct. We’re going to want to be as prepared as possible for the challenges that they bring, but we also need to stay true to our own identity and play on our toes and be aggressive. That’s part of our job, is to take in all the information, decide what’s important and then give it to the players as efficiently we can.”
During Phase 2 (voluntary small-group workouts at team facilities), coaches aren’t allowed to be on the ice with players. That can only happen once formal training camps open on the targeted date of July 10, which is still nearly four weeks away.
From now until then, the focus for the Blackhawks players will be on getting back into game shape and getting their timing right. The attention will shift to the Oilers once the internal work is ironed out.
“There’s plenty of things you can work on in your own game,” Alex DeBrincat said. “Come training-camp time, you’re going to be focused on the other team, but also worried about your own system and I think that’s the best way to do it. Worry about your own game. If your game’s at top-level, you’re going to most likely win. I think we’ll probably be worrying a lot about our system and the stuff we want to do before worrying about them.”
The Blackhawks are essentially treating the Return to Play format as a new season. If hockey returns at the beginning of August, that will be almost four months without game action for all 24 teams. It could make for some entertaining hockey, which is why the Blackhawks want to make sure they take of their own business first.
“Teams probably don’t have their systems and defensive structure completely dialed in,” Patrick Kane said. “Even though you’ll have some time in training camp to try and do that, you can never really simulate a true game situation. You always see that in the beginning of the season, where there’s a lot of scoring to start the season. It might be a similar situation where you come back and it’s a high-scoring series.”
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How Blackhawks are preparing for play-in series against Oilers originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago