The Chicago Blackhawks took full advantage of their opportunities in Edmonton as they advanced into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but now the road gets significantly harder as they’ll take on the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights in the Western Conference Quarterfinals.
The Golden Knights, who went a perfect 3-0 in round robin play against the other top three teams in the west, are a formidable squad with strong goaltending, a deep and talented forward group, and a blue line full of players ready and able to drive offensive possessions when necessary.
That goaltending group is headlined by the two-headed monster of Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner, who is plenty familiar to Blackhawks fans, as he played 33 games in Chicago this season before being traded to the Golden Knights in February.
Lehner started two of the three games the Knights played in round robin play, and although Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer hasn’t named a starter for the series yet, it would appear Lehner will have the inside track to face his former team when the playoffs begin this week.
On the defensive side, the Golden Knights are a team with plenty of depth and talent, but the group is headlined by the players that can make plays happen on the offensive side of the ice. Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore are two of the Golden Knights’ most productive players offensively, and their ability to stretch the ice and to keep pressure on opposing forwards can cause even the most talented of teams fits as they try to set up their offense.
That high level of engagement by the blue liners creates plenty of opportunities for the team’s forward group, and they have one of the deepest groups of forwards in the league, with players like Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone and William Karlsson all providing ample scoring prowess to the club.
The Golden Knights did finish outside of the top 10 in the league in both goals scored per game and goals allowed per game, but make no mistake: this is a group that can score goals in bunches and has the ability to persevere through scoring droughts from their top-tier players, unlike the top-heavy Edmonton Oilers squad that the Blackhawks just knocked off.
In terms of weaknesses, there is one key area to keep an eye on for Vegas: their penalty kill. While the Oilers had one of the best penal,ty killing units in the league this season, the Golden Knights had one of the worst, killing off 80.8% of the power plays they faced. In fact, only one team still eligible for postseason contention had a worse penalty kill than the Golden Knights, with the Toronto Maple Leafs still facing an elimination game Sunday against Columbus.
That could be an area where the Blackhawks could potentially do some damage, as they showed some prowess on the power play in Games 1 and 4 of their series with Edmonton. If Dominik Kubalik and Jonathan Toews can continue their strong play, the man-advantage could be a key advantage to a Blackhawks squad looking for a big upset.
That upset could also be helped by Corey Crawford, as the netminder played his best game of the postseason in Friday’s Game 4 win over Edmonton. If Crawford, who is still recovering after missing most of training camp with the coronavirus, is able to find his form, the Golden Knights could be in for a stern challenge, as the proven playoff performer could help give his club a fighting chance in the postseason.
Ultimately, the Blackhawks do face an uphill climb against these Golden Knights, who have been one of the NHL’s most remarkable stories throughout their brief history in the league. The Blackhawks went 1-1-1 against Vegas during the regular season, and have struggled in their all-time series against Vegas, going 1-6-2 in nine all-time meetings.
The NHL is expected to release the first round schedule soon, and the Blackhawks will likely once again get late-night billing from the league. You can keep up with coverage on that announcement, as well as the entire series, right here on the NBC 5 Chicago Hockey page.