The Vegas Golden Knights officially began their 2020 playoff push Tuesday night in Edmonton. It was the start of the Knights’ sixth all-time postseason series in the franchise’s third postseason appearance in three years.
This time around, the Knights are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and that’s pretty much how they looked throughout much of their 4-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1.
Tonight presents an opportunity for Vegas to take a 2-0 series lead; though the Knights are heavy favorites in the matchup, they are going head to head against one of the most experienced and successful cores in the NHL, so it won’t be easy.
Chicago pulled off an upset by defeating the Oilers in four games in the qualifying round; though the venue hasn’t changed, Chicago looked like a completely different team on Tuesday. How much of that was due to the Knights playing well vs. a restrained performance by Chicago is difficult to judge.
But Robin Lehner only had to make 19 saves on 20 shots against his former team. Aside from having to play without a skate blade twice, Lehner wasn’t tested, but the Blackhawks are sure to respond with a more effective offensive effort tonight.
The Knights weren’t quite as dominant in possession as they were throughout the regular season, though they held an edge in almost every category, including shots (34-20), hits (35-20), blocks (18-12), Corsi (57.32 percent), shot share (65.85 percent), high-danger Corsi (63.64 percent) and, most importantly, goals (4-1).
The few areas where Chicago came out on top or pulled close to Vegas were faceoff percentage (55-45), scoring chance share (50 percent), expected goals (1.08 compared to Vegas’ 1.18) and discipline, as both teams took just two penalties. That certainly was not the case in Chicago’s series against Edmonton, which featured close to nine power plays per game (35 total in four games).
The Knights’ star-studded top line of Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty and William Karlsson was surprisingly quiet in Game 1 despite finishing the game with Corsi For percentages of 56, 60 and 60, respectively.
Instead, it was Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault and Paul Stastny who led the way, scoring three of four goals and finishing the game with a 66.67 percent Corsi, 62.5 percent shot share and 60 percent high-danger Corsi. The fourth line also had a strong game, though the other two were largely ineffective.
One thing’s for sure: it would help for Lehner to not have any equipment malfunctions again, though he seems to have taken care of the matter.
Guess I have to get new ones.. might as well sharpen them too. pic.twitter.com/KVCsfNZGYk— Robin Lehner (@RobinLehner) August 12, 2020
DeBoer says Lehner has a new pair of skates. All may breathe.#VegasBorn— Danny Webster (@DannyWebster21) August 12, 2020
Now that that’s settled, here are three things the Knights need to do in today’s game.
Continue to limit Chicago’s chances
The Knights were able to keep Chicago to the perimeter and take away the slot for most of the night, which was a key factor in their victory. That is something they will have to continue in Game 2 in order to keep this Chicago offense at bay.
The Blackhawks employed a conservative strategy against the structured Vegas team, a stark contrast to the aggressive, run-and-gun approach in the qualifying round. That worked at times in the regular season as well as against an Oilers team prone to mistakes, but clearly Chicago recognizes that Vegas is not that kind of opponent.
That very fact did and could continue to give the Knights an advantage.
Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton said after the game that the Hawks will need to “grind” out a win against the Knights with a patient mindset rather than taking chances to make big plays.
The Knights seemed more than comfortable to slow the game down, and the Blackhawks’ patience prevented them from generating much of anything offensively.
In fact, the Blackhawks tied a season low in shots (20) and managed just four high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 after averaging nearly nine per game in the regular season.
If Chicago continues to struggle, Colliton has said he would consider putting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane together on the same line.
But Vegas’ methodical two-way game plan could wear down the Chicago players, and, if need be, the Knights have plenty of offensive firepower to pick their spots.
One thing is clear: the Knights have to remain disciplined. The Blackhawks didn’t score on the power play in Game 1, but they sure looked dangerous on the man advantage. They produced nine scoring chances on two power-play opportunities and were moving the puck well.
Discipline is an issue that has gotten the Knights into trouble in the past, particularly in the playoffs. Plus, the Knights ranked 27th in the league on the penalty kill during the regular season.
The Blackhawks went 4-for-18 in four games against the Oilers, and they have the personnel to make you pay for any unnecessary infraction.
Play for 60 minutes
The Golden Knights have owned the third period since the start of the round robin, outscoring opponents 10-1. While that has been incredibly effective through four games, Vegas needs to be playing that way for the whole game.
The final score in Game 1 may have been 4-1, but it was much closer than that score suggests.
It’s fair to say that the first period was a hesitant one in which both teams were looking to get a feel for the series; neither team scored, and the two clubs combined for just one high-danger chance in the frame.
The second period saw the Knights jump ahead to a 1-0 lead off a goal by Shea Theodore. Vegas doubled its lead on a questionable goal that seemed to be offside despite holding up upon a challenge. Chicago ultimately made up for it with a shorthanded goal on the ensuing power play and finished the frame with a 16-11 edge in Corsi.
The third period is when Vegas took over, and Smith left a mark by making it 3-1 just 3:32 into the period and adding a second goal five minutes later.
But for 43:32 (aside from the 83 seconds between goals), this was a one-goal or tied game. Throw in the fact that neither goalie was particularly tested, and this could have gone a different way. The Knights were the better team throughout the game, and they got the win because of it. However, it would go a long way if the Knights could channel that third-period mentality and effort earlier on.
Brandon Saad — Jonathan Toews — Dominik Kubalik
Alex DeBrincat — Kirby Dach — Patrick Kane
Alex Nylander — Dylan Strome — Drake Caggiula
Ryan Carpenter — David Kampf — Matthew Highmore
Duncan Keith — Adam Boqvist
Calvin de Haan — Connor Murphy
Olli Maatta — Slater Koekkoek
Vegas Golden Knights
Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Alex Tuch — Chandler Stephenson — Nick Cousins
William Carrier — Nicolas Roy — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Shea Theodore — Alec Martinez
Zach Whitecloud — Nick Holden
How to watch
Time: 2:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM