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2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Blackhawks open first-round playoff series vs. Golden Knights

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Chicago will play its first playoff game since 2017.

Chicago Blackhawks v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

The Blackhawks are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2017.

Chicago advanced past the Qualifiers with a 3-1 series win against the Oilers. The Blackhawks eliminated Edmonton with a 3-2 victory in Game 4 thanks to a late goal from Dominik Kubalik and Corey Crawford’s 43-save performance to move on to face the Western Conference’s first seed, which was won by the Golden Knights in the round robin.

It might be the worst possible match up for the Blackhawks. Vegas is everything the Blackhawks are not — deep, able to roll four lines that can score and drive possession; fast, with players like William Carrier and Chandler Stephenson; and aggressive, as their penalty kill style, or power kill, led them to a NHL-high nine shorthanded goals this season.

The Golden Knights also have a far superior defense, with a top four of Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb, Nate Schmidt and Shea Theodore. Although that’s not exactly hard, as the Blackhawks were the NHL’s worst defense at five-on-five, ranking 31st in multiple categories including shots against per 60 (34.82), expected goals per 60 (2.64) and high-danger chances against per 60 (12.91).

Meanwhile, Vegas had the best shot share (54.42 percent), expected goal share (56.07 percent) and the second-best high-danger share (55.72 percent) at five-on-five. Vegas won the Pacific Division and the Blackhawks were the last team in the Central. These stats serve as a good reminder why.

Head to head play

The Blackhawks didn’t do half bad possession wise against Vegas in their three-game regular season series. They had a 43.94 Corsi For rating and 45.4 percent shot share at five-on-five, but also had a 51.85 percent high-danger share and 50.09 percent expected goal share. Those last two numbers fall to 46.88 percent and 48.63 percent in 9:28 of additional even strength time.

At a per 60 basis, the Blackhawks’ 47.35 shot attempt rate was down from their 55.96 mark across the regular season and from the 50.97 mark against Vegas. Their high-danger per 60 mark was up, however, from their 10.89 rate in the regular season and from Vegas’ 9.99 against. They allowed fewer expected goals than Vegas’ 2.72 expected goals for per 60 and their own 2.64 regular season mark.

The Blackhawks have proven they can play well against the Golden Knights this season, but will need to do so on a consistent basis to win Game 1 and the series.

Matchups

One of the interesting arcs from this game will be the line matchups the Golden Knights play against the Blackhawks. Chicago will then be able to see results and play their matchups in Games 3 and 4, at least, as the home team with the last change.

The Golden Knights’ best two lines are Jonathan Marchessault-William Karlsson-Reilly Smith and Mark Stone-Stephenson-Max Pacioretty. Those are the lines the Jonathan Toews and David Kampf lines should go up against.

However, that forces the mostly-offensive Kirby Dach line and the “what would you say you do here” Dylan Strome trio into bad matchups, as the Golden Knights have four lines that can dominate. The Ryan Reaves-Nicolas Roy-Carrier line is better than it has any right to be and the Alex Tuch-Paul Stastny-Nick Cousins line has two potent offensive weapons on the line in Tuch and Stastny.

No matter how the Blackhawks lines match up, there’s a potential mismatch and weakness. Vegas is just deeper than Chicago.

The Blackhawks were 1-1-1 in the regular season series against the Golden Knights. Chicago became the last NHL team to defeat Vegas with a 5-3 victory Nov. 13 in Las Vegas.

Top six

The Blackhawks’ top six showed up against the Edmonton Oilers, especially their first line of Toews, Kubalik and Brandon Saad. Those three dominated the last Game 1 they played in, and scored two goals in Game 4. They’ll need to replicate that success against Vegas.

But the second line of Dach, Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane could be better. Kane didn’t break a game open in the series against the Oilers, although he scored four points (one goal, one primary assist, two secondary assists) in four games. DeBrincat had three assists (two primary) and Dach had four (two primary).

Kane scored the only goal between the three. That won’t be enough against the Golden Knights, so that line will have to find a way to put the puck in the net more often.

The Golden Knights’ top six shouldn’t have a problem with it. Marchessault and Stone each scored two goals in the round robin and Smith had two primary assists, while Stephenson had a goal and Karlsson three points (one goal, two assists). Pacioretty, who led Vegas in scoring, is expected to return from an undisclosed injury during training camp for Game 1.

Panda in the room

When the Blackhawks traded Robin Lehner at the deadline, they certainly didn’t think they’d end up here. The playoffs were out of reach and they were a seller for a reason, giving up not just Lehner but Erik Gustafsson as well.

Now, the Blackhawks will face their former goaltender, who took to Twitter to give his reaction to the situation:

Corey Crawford firmly won the net by the time Lehner was traded, and had looked like the better goaltender since the calendar turned to 2020. Yet, Lehner was a vital piece. He made the Blackhawks’ penalty kill better — his .918 save percentage was third-best in the NHL among goaltenders with more than 60 shorthanded minutes — and that was one of Vegas’ biggest weakness in the regular season.

The other one was goaltending with Marc-Andre Fleury’s .905 save percentage not doing the job. It turns out the Blackhawks fixed the glaring holes of the very last team they should have.

Tale of the Tape

Blackhawks — Stat — Golden Knights

48.79% (21st) — Corsi for — 54.49% (2nd)

46.63% (28th) — Expected goals for — 54.68% (1st)

2.97 (18th) — Goals per game — 3.15 (13th)

3.06 (16th) — Goals against per game — 2.94 (13th)

15.2% (28th) — Power play — 22% (9th)

82.1% (9th) — Penalty kill — 76.6% (27th)

49.9% (17th) — Faceoffs — 50% (16th)

Projected lineups

Blackhawks

Kubalik — Toews — Saad

DeBrincat — Dach — Kane

Nylander — Strome Caggiula

Carpenter — Kampf — Highmore

Keith — Boqvist

De Haan — Murphy

Maatta — Koekkoek

Crawford

Subban

Golden Knights

Marchessault — Karlsson — Smith

Pacioretty — Stastny — Stone

Cousins — Stephenson — Tuch

Carrier — Roy — Reaves

McNabb — Schmidt

Martinez — Theordore

Holden — Whitecloud

Lehner

Fleury

How to Watch

When: 9:30 p.m.

Where: Rogers Place, Edmonton, AB, Canada

TV: NBC Sports Network, NBC Sports Chicago

Live stream: NBC Sports app, NHL.TV