Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks playoff preview

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No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks

Golden Knights: 3-0-0 in round-robin; 39-24-8, .606 points percentage in regular season

Blackhawks: 3-1 to win qualifier series against Edmonton Oilers; 32-30-8, .514 points percentage in regular season

Season series: VGK 2-1-0; CHI 1-1-1

Game 1 is Tuesday (10:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS)

The Golden Knights, in their third season, are trying to win their first Stanley Cup championship. To do so, they first must get past the Blackhawks, who won the Cup three times since 2010 (2013, 2015), in the Western Conference First Round.  

“It’s something we talked about since the beginning; we came here with one goal and, obviously, it’s the Stanley Cup, but we’ve got to take it one step at a time,” Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “We came here to take every challenge ahead of us, and we did a good job. We wanted first seed after the round-robin, and we got it done. I think it’s pretty positive. We’re really happy where our game’s at as a team.”

Vegas, which finished first in the Pacific Division during the regular season, earned the top seed in the West by winning all three of its games in the round-robin portion of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers against the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues by a combined score of 15-10.  

The Golden Knights knew they would be in the first round as one of the top four regular-season teams in the West based on points percentage, but it was not expected that the Blackhawks would be here.

Chicago was the 12th seed in the West and finished 23rd of the 24 teams in the Qualifiers based on regular-season points percentage, but it upset No. 5-seeded Edmonton in four games in the best-of-5 series, including one-goal wins in Games 3 and 4.

The Blackhawks, who have not been in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2017, got significant contributions from their championship core, including three-time Cup winners Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Toews led them with seven points (four goals, three assists); Kane scored four points (one goal, three assists) and led their forwards with an average of 22:00 of ice time; and Keith, a defenseman, had four assists.

Corey Crawford, who helped Chicago win the Cup in 2013 and 2015, was a difference maker, especially in a 3-2 victory in Game 4, when he made 43 saves, including 20 in the third period. 

The Golden Knights, who reached the 2018 Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, have never played the Blackhawks in the playoffs.

 

Game breakers

Golden Knights: Mark Stone was second on Vegas with 63 points (21 goals, 42 assists) in 65 games and led them with five points (two goals, three assists) in the round-robin. The forward has 30 points (13 goals, 17 assists) in 37 NHL postseason games, including 17 (eight goals, nine assists) in 10 games with Vegas, after spending most of his first six NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators. Last season, Stone was voted a finalist for the Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward in the NHL.

Blackhawks: In addition to leading them in points against the Oilers, Toews led the Blackhawks with three power-play points (two goals, one assist) and won 55.34 percent of his face-offs. Toews, who was second on Chicago with 60 points (18 goals, 42 assists) in 70 regular-season games, was dominant in puck battles, including overwhelming defenseman Ethan Bear before setting up Dominik Kubalik for the winning goal in Game 4.

 

Goaltending

Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury won the Stanley Cup three times with the Pittsburgh Penguins (2009, 2016, 2017), helped Vegas to the Cup Final in 2018, and has 143 games of NHL postseason experience. Robin Lehner, who started the season with the Blackhawks before being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs and later the Golden Knights on Feb. 24, has played 12 NHL postseason games. But Lehner played two of the three round-robin games, winning each and making the save on 56 of 62 shots (.903 save percentage). Fleury struggled in a 6-4 win against the St. Louis Blues on Aug. 6, making the save on 13 of 17 shots (.765 save percentage). “I can guarantee that if we get where we want to go, we’re going to be using both guys,” coach Peter DeBoer said.

Blackhawks: Crawford missed all but the final day of training camp after testing positive for COVID-19. He struggled in the first two games (5.00 goals-against average, .844 save percentage) but made the save on 97 of 108 shots in the final two (3.67 GAA, .898 save percentage). He was 16-20-3 with a 2.77 GAA, a .917 save percentage and one shutout in 40 regular-season games (39 starts). 

 

Numbers to know

Golden Knights: Fleury is in the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season, tying him with Tony Esposito for the longest streak by a goalie in NHL history. Esposito did it from 1970-83 with the Blackhawks. Fleury needs one victory to tie Ken Dryden (80) for sixth in NHL playoff wins.

Blackhawks: At 37 years old, Keith leads Chicago and is 11th among NHL defensemen in average ice time during the postseason (25:36 per game).

 

X-factors

Golden Knights: Max Pacioretty hasn’t practiced since July 20, ruled unfit to play. But DeBoer said Sunday that the forward has joined the Golden Knights in Edmonton and is expected to play in Game 1 against the Blackhawks. Pacioretty plays on the top line when he’s healthy and led Vegas with 66 points (32 goals, 34 assists) in 71 regular-season games. He scored 11 points (five goals, six assists) in seven playoff games last season, his first with the Golden Knights after 10 with the Montreal Canadiens.

Blackhawks: In his first NHL postseason, forward Matthew Highmore has three points (two goals, one assist) in four games, fourth among rookies. The 24-year-old, who plays left wing on the fourth line with center David Kampf and right wing Ryan Carpenter, has been a solid net-front presence, scoring each of his goals against Edmonton with a deflection.

 

They said it

“We talked when we got to training camp that we wanted to create the easiest path we could possibly give ourselves. This is, I think, the hardest trophy in pro sports to win, and the trail you have to go through and down in order to do it is very difficult. So you want to give yourself the easiest path, and the easiest path for us is to come in here and do what we did — win all of your round-robin games and win the first seed. … It gives you last change and it gives you the lowest seed every round to play against. You hope that becomes an important piece because at the end, there is very little that separates teams.” — Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer

“We were pretty eager to get this chance and show what we can do. Technically, we just made the playoffs now, so the real fun begins. We worked pretty hard in this series to beat a good team (the Oilers), and we’re going to have to dig deep to keep finding better and better the next one. It’s fun even though there are no fans in the building. Guys want to win. Nice to get that series win. I think everyone’s feeling good.” — Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews

 

Will win if … 

Golden Knights: They find a workable split for their two goalies and get above-average results from them. The Golden Knights have four lines that can produce and will be even more potent if Pacioretty is available and effective. They also have a solid group of defensemen, led by Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez and Nate Schmidt. So the onus is on Fleury and Lehner to do their part.

Blackhawks: Crawford continues to improve. He has been a strong playoff goalie throughout his NHL career, going 51-38 with a 2.35 GAA and .918 save percentage in 91 games (89 starts). It’ll help if the Blackhawks keep getting balanced contributions. Six players (forwards Toews, Kane, Kubalik and Kirby Dach, and defensemen Olli Maatta and Keith) scored at least four points in the four games against the Oilers.

 

Golden Knights projected lineup

Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Mark Stone

Jonathan Marchessault — Paul StastnyReilly Smith

Nick CousinsAlex TuchNicolas Roy

William CarrierTomas NosekRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt

Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore

Nick HoldenZach Whitecloud

Robin Lehner

Marc-Andre Fleury

Scratched: Patrick Brown, Dylan Coghlan, Oscar Dansk, Reid Duke, Deryk Engelland, Nicolas Hague, Keegan Kolesar, Peyton Krebs, Jon Merrill, Gage Quinney, Chandler Stephenson

Unfit to play: None

 

Blackhawks projected lineup

Dominik Kubalik — Jonathan Toews — Brandon Saad

Alex DeBrincat — Kirby Dach — Patrick Kane

Alex Nylander — Dylan Strome — Drake Caggiula

Matthew Highmore — David Kampf — Ryan Carpenter

Duncan Keith — Adam Boqvist

Calvin de Haan — Connor Murphy

Olli Maatta — Slater Koekkoek

Corey Crawford

Malcolm Subban

Scratched: Collin Delia, MacKenzie Entwistle, Brandon Hagel, John Quenneville, Dylan Sikura, Philipp Kurashev, Nicolas Beaudin, Lucas Carlsson, Alec Regula, Nick Seeler, Kevin Lankinen

Unfit to play: None

NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers and independent correspondent Rick Sadowski contributed to this report

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