The First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs begins August 11. Before the NHL postseason resumes play, PHT will preview each of the eight opening round matchups, including Blackhawks and Golden Knights.
1. Robin Lehner vs. the Blackhawks is a legit storyline …
… But not really because of awkwardness. Ultimately, the Blackhawks merely signed Lehner for a single season, and he only played (very well) for them in 33 games. That’s not exactly the equivalent to bumping into your ex-spouse and their new significant other after a turbulent, decades-long marriage.
Not that there’s anything wrong with playing it up for laughs.
— Robin Lehner (@RobinLehner) August 8, 2020
Still, it’s a situation to watch, because the Blackhawks badly need to “get to” the goalie they’re facing, and it looks like Lehner will most likely be the starter.
2. … Because goaltending, thanks to Corey Crawford, is Chicago’s best chance
Look, the Oilers – Blackhawks series boiled down to controlled chaos. Chicago made fewer mistakes, and capitalized on many of those it got. Credit players like Jonathan Toews for surviving the onslaught from Connor McDavid to win that series.
Yet, as bright as McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can shine, their Oilers teammates frequently let them down. In the First Round, the Blackhawks face a far more frightening opponent. The Golden Knights boast high-end players that aren’t as far off of the McDavid level as one might think, as Mark Stone‘s two-way play makes up for much of the difference in McDavid’s all-world offense. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights possess the sort of debt where they can gladly merely tie the Blackhawks at best-on-best, and then roll over Chicago’s paltry supporting cast.
On paper (more on that in a moment), the Blackhawks simply cannot keep up. So they’re going to need a keyed-in Corey Crawford.
As great as Lehner was for Chicago, Crawford wasn’t that far behind him. It’s possible, then, that the Blackhawks can hold an advantage in net. That’s especially true if Vegas is impatient with Lehner, what with Marc-Andre Fleury waiting in the wings.
The dream scenario for Chicago would be a shaky game or two from Lehner, leading to a premature move to “MAF,” who simply may be beyond the point where he can dominate. That may be the most reasonable path for Chicago to pull off a bigger upset than knocking out McDavid & Co.
3. On paper, Golden Knights hold a massive advantage over the Blackhawks
Pick a regular season team stat category at a site like Natural Stat Trick, and the Golden Knights are likely to be close to, if not at, the absolute top. They massively outchance their opponents, and not just “empty calories.” Vegas dominated in gaining high-danger chances, too. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks ranked in the bottom third, if not the bottom five, in just about every meaningful category.
About the only area the Golden Knights struggle is in finishing.
That’s especially true since, while the Blackhawks relying enormously on goaltending bailing them out in 2019-20, the Golden Knights … you know, traded for at least half of that equation in Lehner.
Chicago needs those bounces.
4. Peter DeBoer is still pretty new to the Golden Knights
Bafflingly, the Golden Knights fired Gerard Gallant despite strong underlying numbers back in January, replacing him with Peter DeBoer, once of the hated Sharks. While the pandemic pause gave DeBoer more time to acquaint himself with the Golden Knights, this is still a team that’s relatively new to him.
Now, there can be advantages to DeBoer being relatively new to Vegas. Maybe most importantly, he might not feel as obliged to start Marc-Andre Fleury if Lehner continues to look sharper. DeBoer also is an experienced coach in general, while Jeremy Colliton remains quite new to this.
But … hey, it’s unusual to be a top seed during the same season that you replaced your head coach, too. (Hockey, everyone.)
5. Prediction: Golden Knights in 5
The best-of-five nature of the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers lent to higher upset potential, but going to best-of-seven only removes some of that randomness. Chicago has a new lease on life, and may feel pretty loose with a “We shouldn’t even be here” attitude. It’s also worrisome to see Max Pacioretty miss round-robin games after “Patches” enjoyed a sneaky-fantastic season.
Overall, though, the Golden Knights are going to be a beast to handle. Goaltending held them down at times last season, and now they have Lehner. (Let’s face it, too, Marc-Andre Fleury could be motivated to keep starting if he does get in on the action, or even surprisingly starts Game 1.)
Just about any team figures to struggle against the swarming Golden Knights. That’s especially true for a porous defensive team like the Blackhawks.
No. 1 Vegas Golden Knights vs. No. 8 Chicago Blackhawks
Tuesday, Aug. 11: Chicago at Vegas, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Thursday, Aug. 13: Chicago at Vegas, 5:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 15: Vegas at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Sunday, Aug. 16: Vegas at Chicago, 6:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
*Tuesday, Aug. 18: Chicago at Vegas – TBD
*Thursday, Aug. 20: Vegas at Chicago – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Chicago at Vegas – TBD