Updated August 8, 2020 - 5:06 pm
The Golden Knights’ reward for earning the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference: Facing the No. 12 Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the NHL playoffs in Edmonton, Alberta.
Chicago (32-30-8) had the second-worst points percentage among the teams that returned to play and was last in the Central Division when the NHL season paused because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Blackhawks even shipped out players at the trade deadline, sending defenseman Erik Gustafsson to Calgary and goaltender Robin Lehner to the Knights (39-24-8).
Still, Chicago rallied during the qualifying round to defeat Edmonton in four games in the Oilers’ building. It’s a team that has top-end talent, plus a mix of youth and playoff experience. Whether it has enough depth to hang with the Knights remains to be seen.
“I thought we got better as the year went on,” Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said Saturday. “Our team, there was a transformation from training camp to March, and then all those guys got a little break to reflect on the season they’d gone through, and they’ve taken another step. For me, that’s probably the biggest reason we’re a better team now.”
The Blackhawks are led by players who should be familiar to fans. Former Hart Trophy winner Patrick Kane had another impressive season with 33 goals and 84 points in 70 games. Center Jonathan Toews had 60 points in the regular season and continued to cement his reputation as a playoff performer with seven points against the Oilers.
“It starts from the top with him,” left wing Brandon Saad said of Toews, the team’s captain.
Veteran defenseman Duncan Keith also showed he still has life in his legs by recording four assists versus Edmonton while averaging 25:36 minutes. All three are holdovers from Chicago’s Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2010, 2013 and 2015.
Goaltender Corey Crawford, who won Cups in 2013 and 2015, was solid against the Oilers despite missing the start of training camp because of a positive COVID-19 test. He had an .891 save percentage for the series, but he stopped 33 of 35 shots in Game 4.
The Blackhawks’ veteran core has been supplemented with young talent, too. Left wing Dominik Kubalik is a Calder Trophy finalist after scoring 30 goals in the regular season, and he added three more against Edmonton. Forwards Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome and 2019 No. 3 overall pick Kirby Dach can cause headaches.
The rest of Chicago’s roster isn’t as inspiring. The team finished 18th in offense, 16th in defense, 28th on the power play and ninth on the penalty kill. The Knights put up better marks in all categories except the penalty kill.
The Knights won two of three regular-season games against the Blackhawks. The first game, on Oct. 22 at United Center, featured a memorable comeback, as defenseman Nick Holden scored with 1:33 to play to tie the score 1-1. The Knights then won in a shootout.
The Blackhawks’ win also was notable because the game featured a penalty shot by each team. Both were saved, and Chicago won 5-3 on Nov. 13 at T-Mobile Arena.
The teams have a fair amount of connective tissue. Lehner is the most notable example. He signed a one-year deal with the Blackhawks in the offseason with dreams of getting a long-term contract but was traded at the deadline. He said upon arriving in Las Vegas that he wasn’t happy with how things played out.
Lehner was more diplomatic when asked about the matchup Saturday. He doesn’t know if he’ll be starting against his former team because coach Pete DeBoer said Saturday he hadn’t begun those conversations.
“It’s going to be fun playing them,” Lehner said. “They’re a good hockey team, and I have a lot of respect for them, the whole organization. I really like it here. I think we’re a great hockey team, and we’ll do well against them.”
Other common links between the teams include Blackhawks goaltender Malcolm Subban and forward Ryan Carpenter. Subban, the Knights’ former backup, went to Chicago in the Lehner trade. Carpenter signed a three-year deal with the Blackhawks in the offseason after two years with the Knights.
Now, they will be reunited. Chicago was even scouting the opposition Saturday, as the team watched the Knights play the Colorado Avalanche at Rogers Place.
“We have a pretty good task against Chicago here,” left wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “They’re one of the best teams (in the NHL) for the past 10 years.”