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Kubalik stars as Blackhawks stun Oilers in NHL qualifier opener

Kubalik stars as Blackhawks stun Oilers in NHL qualifier opener
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EDMONTON—Rookie winger Dominik Kubalik scored two goals and added three assists, leading the Chicago Blackhawks to a 6-4 win over the host Edmonton Oilers in the opener of their best-of-five qualifying round series on Saturday.

Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews chipped in two goals and one assist.

Connor McDavid had a goal and three assists for Edmonton.

It was a continuation of the torrid scoring pace set by Kubalik, a 24-year-old Czech forward and a Calder Trophy finalist. He racked up 30 goals and 16 assists before regular-season play was halted in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Wednesday’s exhibition game against St. Louis, he had two goals and an assist.

Kubalik and the Hawks took control early in the afternoon contest, the first in Edmonton as part of the NHL’s restart.

He notched three assists as the Hawks blitzed the Oilers with four goals in the first 13 minutes of the game to take a 4-1 lead.

Kubalik then scored twice in the second period, his first goal chasing starter Mike Smith from the Oilers net (five goals on 23 shots), and his second getting past Smith’s replacement, Mikko Koskinen, to make it 6-2.

Three of Edmonton’s goals came on the power play.

Things looked good for the Oilers, and their top-ranked power play, early in the first period. The Hawks took a penalty and McDavid walked in from the faceoff circle and fired a wrist shot over the right shoulder of Hawks goalie Corey Crawford to make it 1-0 at the 2:34 mark.

Then the wheels came off.

Smith, notorious as a wandering gambler out of his crease, coughed up the puck behind the net to Dylan Strome, who proceeded to bank it in off his pad and into the net at 5:51.

On the next three goals, Smith got very little help from this teammates, who wilted under the Blackhawks’ ferocious forecheck, often caught standing around or turning over the puck.

At 7:56, Toews, left alone in the slot on the power play, buried a wrist shot under the bar, glove side on Smith.

At 9:17, an Olli Maatta blue line wrist shot was double deflected in the slot to fly over Smith’s goalpad and in. Brandon Saad got credit for the goal.

At 12:57, Kubalik swooped around the net and dished the puck to an unmolested Toews in the crease, who redirected the puck past Smith.

The Oilers showed some life early in the second period. They made it 4-2, again on the power play, when McDavid, behind the end line, passed the puck to Leon Draisaitl, who one-timed it past Crawford.

Kubalik quickly got that one back, on the power play, taking a cross-ice pass and shooting from the top of the faceoff circle to Smith’s left, sniping the puck over his shoulder and into the net. That was it for Smith.

With time winding down in the period, Kubalik, standing in front of the net, deflected a Duncan Keith blue line slapshot to make it 6-2.

The Oilers scored two goals with less than four minutes to go in the contest to make things interesting.

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Edmonton’s James Neal scored on a goalmouth scramble and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins tipped in an Oscar Klefbom point shot.

The game was played in front of tarps, massive video screens, and empty seats at Rogers Place, which is hosting the 12 Western Conference teams as the NHL completes the 2019-20 season.

While Edmonton, with a better regular season record, was technically the “home team” the sights and sounds of the game were neutral. Goal horns would sound when either team scored, and there were revved-up announcements over the loudspeaker when the Hawks or the Oilers went on the power play.

Goaltending for the Oilers was a question mark heading into the series.

Both Smith and Koskinen had put up similar numbers working in a platoon in the regular season. Smith was 19-12-6 record with a .902 save percentage. Koskinen was 18-13-3 with a .917 save percentage.

The real goaltending question mark was supposed to be Crawford.

The veteran goalie is seen as critical to Chicago’s success, given its leaky defence this year, but only began skating again last week after contracting COVID-19. Crawford was 16-20-3 with a .917 save percentage in the regular season.

Crawford looked sharp Saturday but didn’t see too many dangerous shots. Chicago outshot Edmonton 43-29.

The Blackhawks, 32-30-8 in the regular season, were decided underdogs.

They were trending out of the playoff picture and finished 23rd overall when regular-season play was suspended. They are the bottom seed among the 12 teams playing in the Western Conference elimination round.

The Oilers, seeded fifth with a 37-25-9 record (12th in NHL), were seen as the favourite, especially given they have the two top point-getters this season in the NHL: Draisaitl (110 points) and McDavid (97 points).
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