After beating the Edmonton Oilers in their Qualifying Round series, the Blackhawks are set to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The game plan for beating the Oilers was fairly simple; stay out of the box and beat them at even strength. Though it wasn’t always pretty, the Blackhawks were able to execute their plan at times on their way to eliminating two of the best players in the NHL.
Their series against the Golden Knights presents a much more challenging matchup and a not-so-clear path to winning.
To see which team has the advantage in the series, the game must be broken down into three phrases; even strength, special teams, and goaltending. Here is how the two teams stack up.
After a regular season in which the Blackhawks were near the bottom of the league in nearly every defensive statistic, their four games against the Oilers featured much of the same.
In those four games against the Oilers, the Blackhawks allowed an average of 24.8 shots, 23 scoring chances, and 12 high-danger chances. The Blackhawks’ saving grace was their offense was came to life and thoroughly outplayed the Oilers, making up for their defensive woes.
They scored 12 times at even strength (the most of any team in the Qualifying Round) and found goals from unlikely sources such as Olli Maatta and Matthew Highmore. To get past the First Round, the Blackhawks will need continued scoring at even strength with an emphasis on limiting high-danger scoring chances, something they have not been good at all year.
The Golden Knights use a balanced attack to find success at even strength. In 71 regular-season games, the Golden Knights scored 2.6 goals per 60 minutes and allowed 2.49. They averaged the second-most shots per 60 minutes with 33.75 and generated the most scoring chances with 30.83.
In their three round-robin games in which they went undefeated, the Golden Knights averaged three goals and nearly 20 scoring chances a game. They had eight different players find the back of the net at even strength. Unlike the Oilers’ top-heavy lineup, the Golden Knights’ ability to roll four competent lines is their biggest strength.
Below is a chart that compares offensive output this season at 5v5 play between the Blackhawks and Golden Knights. The Blackhawks’ inability to limit scoring chances once again has them at a disadvantage against the Golden Knights.
The chart below compares the Blackhawks and Golden Knights in terms of defense during 5v5 play per 60 minutes.
Advantage: Golden Knights
The Golden Knights’ ability to produce quality scoring chances as well as limiting their oppositions gives them a clear advantage at 5v5.
Special teams — power play and penalty kill — will once again play a major role in the outcome of this series. After a success rate of 15.2% on the man advantage during the regular season, the Blackhawks were able to convert at a higher rate of 22% in their Qualifying Round series against the Oilers.
Contributions from Jonathan Toews, Dominik Kubalik, and Kirby Dach led the way as the power play, though at times looking complacent, has improved since the regular season.
While on the penalty kill, the Blackhawks struggled against the league-best Oilers’ power play but were able to kill off all five penalties in their series-clinching 3-2 win.
The Golden Knights had a top-ten power play during the regular season with a success rate of 22% and improved to 27.3% during their three round-robin games. Veteran Max Pacioretty led the team with 19 points on the man advantage while four other Golden Knights had ten or more power play points.
Inversely, their penalty kill struggled this season. As the league’s fifth-worst penalty kill, they allowed 50 goals but looked much better in their three round-robin games, allowing just two goals on ten power plays against.
As the Blackhawks’ power play found new life against the Oilers and the penalty kill was able to shut out the Oilers’ impressive power play in their series-clinching win, look for continued success against the Golden Knights.
After missing nearly all of the Blackhawks’ training camp prior to their series against the Oilers, Corey Crawford did just enough to help his team advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After a regular-season save percentage of .917, Crawford struggled at times against the Oilers, finishing with a .891 save percentage in four games. He allowed 15 goals on 137 shots and gave up too many rebounds. As the series went on, he looked more comfortable and played his best game when it mattered most, allowing just two goals on 45 shots in the Blackhawks’ 3-2 win in game four.
The Golden Knights have one of the better goaltender tandems in the NHL. Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner, and newly-acquired Robin Lehner give the team two very good options at the back end.
Lehner seems to have won the job thanks to his performance in two round-robin games, going 2-0 with a 2.89 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Fleury struggled in his one start, allowing four goals on 21 shots.
It looks like Crawford will only get better as he sees more action, while the Golden Knights’ tandem of Lehner and Fleury give them much confidence in net. Look for each goalie to steal a game or two in this series.
And the Winner is…
No matter the winner, expect this series to go at least six games. The Golden Knights have the upper hand at 5v5, but their penalty kill will struggle against the Blackhawks’ confident power play. The goaltending matchup is fairly even and could be a deciding factor.
Blackhawks in seven.