Updated August 19, 2020 - 12:33 am
Most fancy analytics and predictive models projected the Golden Knights would have an easy time in the Western Conference quarterfinals against a team that finished last in its division.
But the Chicago Blackhawks made the Knights work hard to advance.
Alex Tuch scored the go-ahead goal 1:34 into the third period Tuesday, and the Knights eliminated the Blackhawks with a 4-3 victory in Game 5 at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.
The Knights are the first team to clinch and will await their opponent in the semifinals, which are scheduled to begin Tuesday at the earliest. If Colorado and Dallas advance, the top-seeded Knights will play the winner of the St. Louis-Vancouver series that is tied at 2.
“They’re a persistent team,” Knights coach Pete DeBoer said of the Blackhawks. “We were glad to get it over with tonight because they weren’t going away quietly and they made us earn it.”
Tuch, who had the overtime winner against the Avalanche to clinch the top seed in the round robin, gave the Knights their third one-goal victory of the series.
He entered the zone with speed down the left wing, and after Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford stopped the initial shot, Tuch knocked in the rebound.
It was his fourth goal of the playoffs, tied with Mark Stone and Shea Theodore for the team lead.
The Knights have outscored opponents 11-3 in the third period this postseason.
“I just tried to jump off the bench and get my legs going and get the puck to the net and get a lucky bounce,” said Tuch, who had a goal disallowed for goaltender interference later in the third. “The overall win is huge for our group. Not having to go back and play another game gives us a lot of time to rest and recover and get ready for our next opponent.”
DeBoer made a statement with his starting goaltender, selecting Robin Lehner to try to close out the Blackhawks.
Lehner’s miscue in the first period of Game 4 led to Chicago’s winning goal, but he bounced back from his first loss in a Knights uniform with 23 saves.
Lehner, who has not allowed more than three goals in any of his nine appearances with the Knights since being acquired at the trade deadline in February, greeted his former teammates in an emotional handshake line afterward.
He is the second goaltender in NHL history to earn a series-clinching win against a team that he played for in the same season, according to NHL public relations.
“It felt really nice for me to close this out because it’s a bit weird playing your old teams, especially that group,” Lehner said. “I’ve got a lot of friends on that team and all but love for that organization. But huge win for us, and I thought it was a really good series for us to move forward here.”
Chicago’s stars showed up in force to try to extend the Blackhawks’ season after they were held in check through the first four games of the series.
Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat scored in the first period. Patrick Kane added his first goal of the series when he cashed in a Knights turnover to give the Blackhawks a 3-2 lead at 4:02 of the second.
Defenseman Alec Martinez tied the score less than three minutes later with a one-timer that broke an 0-for-11 drought by the Knights on the power play.
“It’s something that we work on in practice and try to utilize seams and try to be a shooting power play,” Martinez said. “(Reilly Smith) just made a good play. It’s pretty tough for a goaltender to get across that quickly, and fortunately I was able to put it in.”
Max Pacioretty tallied his first goal of the postseason late in the first period, and Stone scored 57 seconds into the second period for the Knights.
William Karlsson added two assists.
The Knights returned center Paul Stastny to the lineup after he was called unfit to play the past two games, and Chandler Stephenson bumped from the first line to the fourth.
But they had to play from behind for the second straight game, as Toews registered his first goal of the series at 10:32 of the first period.
Lehner was unable to control the rebound on Dominik Kubalik’s backhand, and Chicago’s captain swooped in to swat the loose puck past his former teammate before defensemen Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb could recover.
Toews tied Steve Larmer for fifth in Blackhawks history with his 45th career playoff goal.
Chicago capitalized on an offensive-zone turnover by the Knights to go ahead 2-0 late in the first. DeBrincat finished off a pretty passing sequence for his second goal in two games before the Knights answered with 30.2 seconds left in the period.
McNabb fired a shot from the point and the puck deflected off Toews’ stick to Pacioretty, who was camped at the side of the net and scored to ignite the Knights.
“Going in down one (goal) is way better than going in down two, obviously. Gave us a little bit of momentum,” Stone said. “We were able to come out strong in the second. When I scored, I kind of had that feeling that we were dialed in and getting it back.”
Golden Knights vs. Blackhawks
Game 1 — Knights, 4-1
Game 2 — Knights, 4-3, OT
Game 3 — Knights, 2-1
Game 4 — Blackhawks, 3-1
Game 5 — Knights, 4-3