Chicago was the No. 12 seed, the last team in the Western Conference to get in to the NHL’s Return to Play Plan, and upset the No. 5 seed Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers to earn the No. 8 seed for the playoffs. Vegas won the Pacific Division and went 3-0 during the round robin against the Avalanche, Stars and Blues, the regular season West champions. The Golden Knights claimed the top seed with a clean sweep in round-robin play and did it against teams better than Chicago.
Even statistically, the Golden Knights have an edge. Vegas was perhaps the best team at five-on-five this season, while the Blackhawks were... not. The Golden Knights acquired goaltender Robin Lehner in a three-way deal with the Blackhawks and Maple Leafs in February to help fix Vegas’ issues in net and on the penalty kill. Vegas’ power play also ranked in the top-10 during the season.
Chicago, however, still has factors that could potentially lead to an upset. Namely, Corey Crawford, who improved throughout the series against the Oilers and is coming off his best performance. Ryan Carpenter, a former Golden Knight, could be looking for a revenge series. The third line could provide the Blackhawks with four potential scoring lines.
Crawford has plenty of playoff experience with 51 career postseason victories, which rank 19th all time, and two Stanley Cup championships to his name. Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury is the only active goalie with more playoff wins (78) and more Cup wins (three), but he wasn’t the starter for the Penguins’ 2016 championship run and split the net with Matt Murray in 2017.
Crawford ended the regular season near his peak form. He had a .917 save percentage across all strengths after a .905 from the start of the season to the end of 2019. There are two different forms there, and perhaps it took time to shake off rust.
He also had a rough start to the Qualifiers, allowing 10 games between the first two games compared to Chicago’s nine. He had a .862 save percentage in Game 1 and .892 save percentage for Game 2.
But he improved to a .893 save percentage in Chicago’ 2-1 win in Game 3 win and stopped .30 goals above expected. He followed it with a 43-save performance, including 17 of 18 high-danger chances, with a 2.49 goals above expected in a 3-2 victory to clinch the series.
It’s understandable Crawford had rough start since he missed all but the final day of training camp recovering from COVID-19. After more than four months away from hockey, a break no one was prepared for, rust was sure to set in.
But if he’s truly shaken it off, there are not many goaltenders better than Crawford is in the playoffs. If he’s the version of himself that played the last two games, he could swing the series.
Carpenter had one assist against his former team in three games. That’s not how he would get revenge though. He allowed one goal against at even strength and none in 6:47 on the penalty kill, where he’s proven to be necessary in the playoffs.
His defense made him valuable to Chicago this season as evidence by his 2.7 defensive goals above replacement and 1.8 defensive expected goals above replacement.
Against the Oilers, Carpenter’s five-on-five possession numbers weren’t that impressive: 45.45 percent Corsi For rating, 47.22 percent shot share, 30.43 percent expected goal share and 31.82 percent high-danger share. But with the context of his 20-percent offensive zone start and that he spent the majority of his time playing against the NHL’s top two scorers in Leon Draisaitl (13:52) and Connor McDavid (17:16), Carpenter’s numbers become more impressive. He allowed four goals, in part because of an abysmal .790 five-on-five save percentage, worst on the team.
Shutting down whatever Golden Knights’ line he goes against would significantly help the Blackhawks because Vegas is incredibly deep with four lines that can drive play and score.
Third line scoring
The Blackhawks are one line away from having four capable scoring lines and it’s not because they need their fourth line to get going. Matthew Highmore scored two crucial goals against the Oilers on redirection, which could be a repeatable feat against Vegas.
The third line of Drake Caggiula, Dylan Strome and Alex Nylander needs to step up. Strome is the only player among the trio to have scored, with a butt goal in Game 1. While Caggiula was suspended for Game 2 because of an illegal check to the head in Game 1, Nylander played 47:57 across all strengths against the Oilers.
It’s not surprising for Nylander, who only had 10 goals and 26 points in 65 games, because he struggled to convert decent looking chances. His 5.3 expected goals above replacement (GAR) were much higher than his actual results: 3.6 expected offensive GAR to 1.5 real GAR and 1.4 real offensive GAR.
But it is somewhat surprising for Caggiula (nine goals, 15 points in 40 games) and Strome (12 goals, 38 points in 58 games). They each had a higher primary points per 60 mark in the regular season than Nylander’s 1.44 with Caggiula at 1.77 and Strome at 1.82.
Caggiula and Strome also had higher offensive GAR than Nylander (4.9 for Strome, 3.6 for Caggiula) and a higher overall GAR (4.7 for Strome, 3.5 for Caggiula). Strome had higher expected offensive GAR (4.1), but Caggiula’s production was a result of a high shooting percentage (a career-high 16.1, while he had 3 expected offensive GAR, although 25 fewer games than Nylander may play into that).
It makes sense for them to be on the third line, especially with Kirby Dach playing well and surpassing Strome, but their lack of results leaves a hole in the Blackhawks’ lineup. If those three can produce it could change the outlook of the series.