The No. 12-seeded Blackhawks took a 3-1 series victory over the Edmonton Oilers in the Qualifying Round to officially punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Jonathan Toews led the way with seven points (4G, 3A) in four games, his four goals just second in the league behind Edmonton's Connor McDavid in the postseason to date.
Vegas, as one of the top four conference finishers in the regular season, competed in the round robin portion of Phase 4, taking wins over Dallas, St. Louis and Colorado with a combined score of 15-10 in three outings. Winger Mark Stone led the Golden Knights in scoring with two goals and three assists.
By virtue of winning the No. 1 seed in the West, Vegas drew Chicago as the lowest remaining seed after the play-in round.
In three meetings this season, the Blackhawks posted a 1-1-1 record against the Golden Knights. Dylan Strome led Chiacgo with four points (1G, 3A) in the season series. Corey Crawford started two of the three games, posting a win and a loss, with a .899 SV% and a 4.01 GAA. William Karlsson led all Golden Knights with three points (2G, 1A) against the Blackhawks this season.
With back-to-back games of the same line combinations and four straight games of the same defensive pairings, barring any last minute lineup changes or matchup shuffling, Chicago should boast the same lineup in Game 1 against Vegas that we saw in the final outing against Edmonton:
Fresh off of doing what many thought they couldn't against the Oilers, the underdog Blackhawks are riding with a little bit of confidence and a little bit of a chip on their collective shoulder back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It's not a feeling the veteran core is all-too familiar with, but it's one they don't mind and are embracing.
"I think a lot of people in the media and so-called hockey experts were picking Edmonton," Patrick Kane said on Monday. "We kind of felt like the underdogs in that series. It's a cool role to play. It's exciting for your team when everyone is counting you out and no one's really giving you a chance."
While their season statistics as a whole might not show it, Chicago was a team finding its way as the season came to an end. Winners in five of their last seven before the pause took place, the hole they had dug in the early months was largely too deep to climb out of in the regular playoff format, but the expanded postseason field and the new slate have proven to be just what the confident Blackhawks needed to take a big step forward in August.
"We're a team that got better as the year went on," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "We had a good training camp, excited about the opportunity to be in the playoffs and excited about the chance to earn our way in. I thought our guys answered the challenge. (We) played well, and know we can play better, but for our group, it's rewarding to have that commitment and be rewarded for it. Now we've got a bigger challenge, which as a player and as a coach, you love being in those situations. I think there is some confidence in our group that we're on the right track and we can compete if we have everyone going."
"This is the fun part that you always want to be a part of," Connor Murphy said. "This is the reason why you do grind through the ups and downs during the regular season to be in these moments, to have an opportunity, to win series and really do something special together."
So much of the focus against the Oilers in the play-in round was centered around slowing down the league's two leading scorers, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. While Chicago wasn't able to completely contain the high-flying duo, as the series went on the impact of each was diminished and became a surmountable obstacle in advancing.
"I don't know if we shut them down, but we tried to limit them and they got a lot of points in the first couple games," Colliton said. "I think that's kind of the rhythm of a playoff series, you try to take things away from the opposition. You try to make them beat you in other ways."
Beginning a series anew, the Vegas Golden Knights pose a completely different threat -- one of not as high in singular quality, but in shear quantity.
"No disrespect to the rest of Edmonton's team, but I think we had a lot of focus on those two players, for sure," the captain Toews said. "With Vegas, all four lines, everyone's going to have to be better in every aspect of the game. There isn't a part of our game that can have any issues or any holes. We're going to have to play that complete game at both ends of the rink, every single game. It's going to be a different challenge and we're all going to have find that next gear."
"They're a good team," Kirby Dach echoed. "They're deep up front. They have good defense. Obviously they've got good goaltending. They play the game fast. They're smart. They're a disciplined team. We just know that we're going to have to keep elevating our game to compete an hopefully win the series."
In the regular season, the Golden Knights saw offensive contributions up and down their lineup, with no team shooting more pucks on net, while also being among the most physical in the league, finishing fourth in hits per game. They dominate puck possession as well, ranked near the bottom of the league in giveaways per game and defensively winning pucks back at a better clip than any team, league leaders in takeaways per game.
"Vegas has some very good offensive players and work ethic away from the puck is really good. They make you earn what you get," Colliton added. "That's going to be a challenge for us. We're going to need to be patient. We're going to need to play in tight games for long stretches and just stick with it. We might not be creating much, but we've got to just be patient and smart and make good decisions with and without the puck. We're probably going to need to win in overtime. We need to be comfortable in that environment and under that kind of pressure. That's what it's going to take to win."
It's hard to look at a Vegas-Chicago matchup and not think about the deadline day trade the two teams engaged in back in late February, when the postseason outlook was bleak for the Blackhawks. Robin Lehner, who picked up 16 wins with a .916 SV% in 33 outings with Chicago through the opening two-thirds of the season, was dealt to Vegas in exchange for a second-round draft pick, prospect Stanislav Demin and goalie Malcolm Subban, who has served as Corey Crawford's backup in every game since.
It seems all but certain that Lehner will now get the starting nod in goal against his former team as Game 1 opens on Tuesday evening, though the Golden Knights have alternated between he and Marc-Andre Fleury since deadline day.
"He didn't take very long to have an impact on our locker room," Toews said of Lehner on Monday. "I think he's a big personality. The guys liked him a lot and I think he played great hockey for us. I think he had a positive influence on everyone in the room, especially our leadership group. Won a lot of games for us.
"At this point, we know what he's good at. We know how we're going to have to try and make his job a lot tougher. But ultimately I think whenever you go up against a good goaltender, it's your job to try and make it hard for them to see the puck and make it hard for them to stop pucks."
"He was a big part of our team when he was here," Colliton said of his former netminder. "But at the same time, it's over. Our total focus is on beating Vegas and that's what we're going to talk about."