Fresh off one of the biggest qualifying-round upsets, the Chicago Blackhawks are in for a much stiffer test against the Vegas Golden Knights. These teams were so far apart from one another in the regular season that Chicago traded goalie Robin Lehner to Vegas at the deadline — and now he’s likely to see action against his former team.
This has all the makings of a fun series. Both play with tempo and excel on offence, though Vegas’ advantage is all over: with depth, on defence and in net.
Can Chicago go on a Cinderella run and keep the upsets coming, or can Vegas start another extended run and continue to emerge as a solid year-in, year-out contender?
Here’s our series preview:
Regular season 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick (with league rank)
Chicago: 48.45 CF% (22nd), 50.00 GF% (18th), 92.51 SV% (8th), 8.42 SH% (14th), 1.009 PDO (7th)
Vegas: 54.76 CF% (1st), 51.02 GF% (11th), 91.18 SV% (27th), 7.69 SH% (22nd), 0.989 PDO (28th)
REGULAR SEASON TEAM STATS
Chicago: 15.2 PP% (28th), 82.1% PK (9th), 208 GF (19th), 214 GA (19th)
Vegas: 22.0 PP% (9th), 76.6 PK% (27th), 224 GF (9th), 209 GA (13th)
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
The story of the qualifying round:
Chicago had such a minuscule chance of reaching the playoffs in March that they were sellers at the trade deadline: shipping out Lehner (to Vegas) and Erik Gustafsson (to Calgary). They had their eyes set on the lottery and the draft — and now they find themselves as one of the top two underdog stories of the post-season so far.
Few gave the Hawks a chance to knock off the Oilers because their defence had been such a problem all season. Only Winnipeg allowed more high-danger chances at 5-on-5 and it’s not as though Chicago improved there against Edmonton — the Hawks allowed more high-danger chances than anyone in the qualifiers. The Blackhawks won’t win with defence and Corey Crawford is unlikely to save them on his own in a series — he had an .891 save percentage in the best-of-five.
Chicago just outscored the Oilers to survive and will need to do the same against Vegas to continue on. The bad news is that Vegas is overall a better defending team than Edmonton, but the good news for Chicago is that the Golden Knights are also a high-event team that plays fast.
Vegas went 15-5-2 and became a dominant puck-possession group after Peter DeBoer took over as head coach in January and continued streaking in the round-robin. They averaged five goals per game and finished 3-0 ahead of Colorado, Dallas and St. Louis.
DeBoer said he expected both Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury to see action in the playoffs, but it appears as though the former has taken top spot on the depth chart. Lehner has gone 5-0-0 in five starts since arriving in that trade and notably got the nod against the Avalanche, the game that determined first place in the West.
Seven players had at least three points in the round robin with Mark Stone being his usual dominant self with a team-high five points to go with an impressive 65.8 Corsi For percentage.
Vegas was without Max Pacioretty after the winger was injured in training camp, but he finally joined his teammates in Edmonton over the weekend. Pacioretty led the Golden Knights with 32 goals and 66 points in the regular season.
Chicago Blackhawks X-Factor: Kirby Dach
Top-line centre Jonathan Toews was the talk of the qualifying-round series against Edmonton, having a throwback of sorts to lead the Hawks in goals, points and being a defensive nuisance. At the same time, the 19-year-old Dach, manning the middle of the second line, showed very well in his first playoff series, recording four points in three games.
In fact, it might be more accurate to call Dach Chicago’s first-line centre since he averaged more even-strength ice time (14:07) than Toews (11:41) and was entrusted with PP and PK time as well. Dach was one of just four Chicago forwards with a positive shot differential at 5-on-5. Dach passed his first test, but it’s about to get much more difficult as Vegas has a greater depth of weapons to score with than Edmonton. The Hawks need him to keep up his play at both ends.
Vegas Golden Knights X-Factor: Alex Tuch
Tuch only suited up for 42 games in the regular season, scoring eight goals and 17 points, and missed the final month of the season with a leg injury. The 24-year-old has bounced back nicely, leading Vegas with three goals in the preliminary round and giving his team’s third line some important offensive upside. Tuch is a big body with speed and soft hands who can absolutely wire the puck like we saw in overtime against the Avalanche.