EDMONTON — When Corey Crawford beat the Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round with a save percentage of just .891, it was the first time a goalie won a series with a number that low since Jonathan Quick beat the Chicago Blackhawks while posting an .889 six years ago.
Crawford battled his own game and the Oilers as well, making some crucial stops late in games that helped get his team into Round 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.
On Tuesday night, however, he didn’t improve. In fact, much to the Blackhawks’ dismay, Crawford’s game dipped, allowing two soft goals in a 4-1 loss to Vegas, as the Golden Knights pulled away on the strength of two Reilly Smith goals in the third period.
The pair of softies — one to Smith, and another to Shea Theodore — allowed a Vegas team to find their way in a game against a Blackhawks team that had prevailed over Edmonton in four games. Head coach Pete DeBoer was confident, but not completely sure that his team would be as steeled as the Blackhawks after the Golden Knights cruised through a 3-0 round-robin that did not have the gravity of the Qualifying Round.
“I felt like the round-robin prepared us for the first round of the playoffs, but you can’t manufacture that desperation that teams have when they’re playing elimination hockey,” DeBoer said post-game. “I thought in the first 10 minutes, Chicago had a bit of an advantage on us. As we worked into the game our level got higher, and we got harder as the game went on.”
Goaltending was, in fact, the one area where Vegas had the Blackhawks somewhat cornered coming into the series, with Crawford being backed up by young Malcolm Subban, the former Vegas backup who was swapped at the deadline for Robin Lehner. The big Swede and Marc-Andre Fleury form a Golden Knights tandem that gives DeBoer a trusty No. 2 that Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton simply does not have.
“Ever since (Lehner) has been with us he’s played great hockey. Same with Flower,” said forward Jonathan Marchessault. “It’s a tough game out there, and Robin worked really hard to earn his spot tonight. There’s no better duo in the NHL.”
On Tuesday, Lehner struggled with a left skate blade that fell completely out of his skate twice during game action. He was forced to play on until his team gained possession of the puck, trying awkwardly to maintain his footing in the Vegas crease while standing on a plastic blade holder.
“I was pretty frustrated. It’s the first time that has ever happened to me,” said Lehner. “You kind of get into it, and I didn’t know what happened there at first. You have to battle through it.”
“I just found out after the game those skates are four years old,” said DeBoer, “so he’s got to take some responsibility for that. For whatever reason, he fell in love with this pair, and it sounds like they just wore out. We’ll have to get that fixed.”
In the end, that faulty steel was the Vegas Knights’ only Achilles heel, as they took the game away from Chicago in the back half. They outshot Chicago 33-20, out-hit them 35-20, and won easily to stake an early claim on this Round 1 series.
“There was a seven-minute stretch in the third when we weren’t very good, when we started cheating,” said Colliton. “It’s a 2-1 game and we started cheating to try and score. We’re going to have to be more patient to win this series.”
Chicago beat Edmonton in the Qualifying Round by hanging around long enough to win games late. Alas, their goaltender eliminated that option in this one, and the Blackhawks were unable to generate enough offence to bail their netminder out.
“We have to finish the job,” Colliton said. “The Edmonton series, they had some high-end players with their speed, it breaks down the structure of the game. Vegas is a different team. It was a more controlled situation, and I thought we were fine for a lot of the game.”
A lot? Sure.
Enough? Not on this night.