The Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup Qualifiers series featured an opponent in the Oilers that had two of the top players in the NHL and little else behind them.
Now, Chicago faces a team in the Golden Knights that are at the opposite end of the spectrum.
In fact, after the Blackhawks’ depth was one of the potential matchup strengths in the qualifying round, it may now be their biggest weakness heading into the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against Vegas.
Vegas was one of the most NHL’s most dominant teams in terms of puck possession during the regular season. The chart below (with all numbers courtesy of Natural Stat Trick), paint a fairly bleak picture for the Blackhawks.
The Golden Knights’ biggest strength is their abilities to use all four lines to possess the puck at rates which allow them to generate more shots and chances then almost every team in the NHL. Their possession game was so dominant that, of the 27 Vegas players who skated at least 50 minutes of five-on-five ice time during the season, only three were had a Corsi For rating under 50: forwards Brandon Pirri and Valentin Zykov and defenseman Jake Bischoff. None of those players made Vegas’ playoff roster.
With Max Pacioretty returning for Game 1, the Golden Knights’ top lines boasts two wingers with absurd xGF% marks for Pacioretty (62.15) and Mark Stone (61.47).
Vegas generates shots and chances during five-on-five play at rates that leaves its opponents chasing. In the three-game season series between Vegas and Chicago, the Blackhawks mustered a series-best 50.53 CF% at five-on-five in a 5-1 loss Dec. 10, a game that saw Chicago down 3-0 by the end of the second period and Calvin de Haan sustain a season-ending right shoulder. And though its shot quantity may have lacked in that game, the Knights were quite successful from the right faceoff dot, as indicated in the heatmap below, also from Natural Stat Trick.
The other two games saw Vegas post a 60.27 CF% in a 2-1 win Oct. 22 and a 59.37 CF% during the Blackhawks’ 5-3 win Nov. 13. The latter of those two was a Chicago victory despite the Blackhawks being outshot 42-26 — a common theme from the regular season.
If there’s one area Vegas is lacking, its in top-end, scoring talent. William Karlsson is the only former 40-goal scorer on the roster and he hasn’t come close to that mark since potting 43 in 2017-18. Pacioretty has cracked the 30-goal plateau six times but never eclipsed 40, indicative of his placement in the “very good but perhaps not quite great” category. Stone is an incredible all-around talent but likely never considered one of the game’s elite point producers. Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Paul Stastny will likely find the scoresheet throughout this series as well but also have a ceiling on their offensive abilities that remains in the realm of only “good.”
What Vegas doesn’t have is a player with the offensive abilities like Patrick Kane, who continues to exist in discussions the game’s best in the attacking zone. But that’s likely the only real advantage that can be discussed here, because the supporting cast around Kane — Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Dominik Kubalik — is dwarfed by the overwhelming depth enjoyed by the Golden Knights.
It will likely take significant heroics from Kane — and he’ll probably need some help, too — for Chicago’s top-end talent to overcome the death-by-a-thousand-cuts approach to hockey taken by Vegas.