Playoff hockey is finally here.
At long last, the puck will drop tonight as the Vegas Golden Knights and Chicago Blackhawks go head to head in their first-round matchup. Tonight will mark the fourth meeting between these teams this season, which has now spanned eleven months.
The Golden Knights have had the upper hand thus far, going 2-1-0 in three regular-season games against Chicago.
In fact, the Golden Knights have had the upper hand in general with an 8-1-0 record against Chicago over the last three years. The Knights didn’t lose a game until Nov. 13, more than two years after the Knights took the ice for the first time. It’s fair to say that the Golden Knights have had the Blackhawks’ number.
On paper, the Knights basically have the series in their hands, with a better 5-on-5 track record and even advantages on special teams. But anything can happen in the playoffs; the Blackhawks should not be taken lightly, and both sides have X-factors that could turn the tide of this series.
Let’s start with Vegas.
Vegas Golden Knights
Max Pacioretty missed the entirety of the round robin, though clearly the Knights (3-0-0) were able to manage without him short-term. Giving him time to be rested, fresh and healthy will be more beneficial in the long run. Plus, adding the leading goal-scorer to a team that’s already secured the top seed in the conference can only help.
Pacioretty, who led the team in goals (32) and points (66) during the regular season, wasn’t overly productive against Chicago this year, scoring just one goal in three games. But the Blackhawks won’t be able to review recent video with Pacioretty in the lineup, and now that Pacioretty has returned to the 30-goal club, it’s likely that he’s been geared up for the playoffs for some time.
After all, Pacioretty has 30 points in 45 playoff games in his career, including 11 points in the Golden Knights’ first-round series against the Sharks last year. That was his best playoff round, since it matched his point total from Montreal’s 2013-14 run to the Conference Final, which lasted 17 games; he was 25 at the time.
Pacioretty is the go-to sniper on Vegas’ power play, and considering how much Chicago struggled while shorthanded in the qualifying-round matchup against the Edmonton Oilers, that could be the perfect role for him to shine.
This one is pretty self-explanatory; the Blackhawks traded Robin Lehner before the deadline, never expecting to be anywhere near playoff positioning this season. Lehner had recently lost the net to Corey Crawford, who had a resurgence after the New Year, making it likely that Chicago would bring him back as the starter next season.
That should give Lehner somewhat of a competitive edge in his game, and he’ll look to be the starter for Vegas in Game 1. He’s the reason the Blackhawks had a decent penalty kill during the regular season, and he finished third in save percentage on the penalty kill (.918) among goalies with more than 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time. He also excelled at 5-on-5, ultimately tying with Crawford with a .926 save percentage.
Being the starting goaltender for Vegas already puts Lehner in a position to be a difference-maker. But the fact that he’ll get to face his old team and go up against the guy who booted him from his former net likely has Lehner salivating. He has the chance to be excellent for the Golden Knights.
William Karlsson didn’t have a bad round-robin series at all. With three points, Karlsson finished tied for third on the team in scoring. But after netting just one goal, he’ll likely want to prove that he’s capable of more, especially after he managed just two goals and five points in last year’s seven-game series against San Jose.
Karlsson has never had the best of luck in the playoffs.
He’s never come close to a point-per-game pace (outside of the round robin), and when he was the team’s first-line center during the 2018 run to the Stanley Cup Final, Karlsson had just seven goals and 15 points in 20 games as a follow-up to his 43-goal regular season.
Even so, Karlsson remains one of the most important Golden Knights forwards.
He’s able to play in all situations of the game and was the team’s leading scorer against the Blackhawks in the regular season with three points, including both a shorthanded and power-play goal. He has 10 career points against the Blackhawks (including from his time in Columbus) with six goals and two primary assists.
Dylan Strome led the Blackhawks in scoring against the Golden Knights this season with four points, including one goal and two primary assists. He also was one of the key forces that helped Chicago secure its first franchise win against Vegas with three points in that 5-3 victory earlier this year.
He didn’t show up much in the qualifying round, scoring just one goal in four games against former Erie Otters teammate Connor McDavid and the Oilers.
But he has three goals and seven points in six games against the Golden Knights as a member of the Blackhawks, so he seems to thrive against Vegas.
Needing a boost after his first taste of postseason hockey, Strome could be on the hunt for more points as he faces a team he’s had success against in his career.
A surprising aspect of the series against the Oilers is the fact that the Blackhawks were able to defeat Edmonton without much production from Patrick Kane, who finished eighth in the league with 84 points in the regular season. One of the most feared playoff performers over the past decade, Kane can be a game-changer, somebody who can break a fan’s heart as fast as his shot release. Yet, even though he scored a point per game with four points in four games, Kane did not fulfill that role against Edmonton.
But perhaps that’s mainly because Kane knew it wasn’t the actual playoffs. Yes, the stats will count towards the postseason totals, but the qualifying round was simply an entrance to the playoffs, not true contention for the Stanley Cup itself.
If that’s the case, Kane could be on the verge of exploding.
Jonathan Toews did just that against the Oilers, and Kane has eight points (3-5—8) in nine career games against the Golden Knights. He scored his first goal of the qualifying round in Game 4, so it’s possible he’s just getting started.
Kirby Dach, Kane’s new linemate who also centered Alex DeBrincat in the Edmonton series, played well against Vegas this season and has been on a bit of a hot streak. The rookie forward scored three points, including two of his eight goals on the season, in three games against the Knights.
He tallied four assists in four games against the Oilers and averaged 20:18 of ice time, which included time on both special teams units. On the power play, he served as the net-front presence and was the guy who went to the dirty areas. Dach has the size to be dangerous in that role; the 6-foot-4 forward is incredibly mobile for someone that size, and he has incredible hands, even if he was unable to finish multiple scoring opportunities against Edmonton.
If he gets hot and is able to do that against Vegas, however, it could spell trouble for the Knights. Half of his goals this season came within the span of four games as part of a five-game point streak, which he was able to replicate later in the season.
Dach has looked like a different player since summer training camp, and he could end up being one of Chicago’s most dangerous weapons.