A six-goal explosion and a five-point night from Calder Trophy finalist Dominik Kubalik powered the Blackhawks to a 6-4 win in Game 1 of their Qualifying Round series against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday afternoon.
"A lot of the things we were hoping to do early on, we were able to," head coach Jeremy Colliton said after the victory -- his first in the postseason as an NHL head coach. "I thought our work ethic away from the puck and just being able to have numbers back to allow us to defend (was) really important. Not the start we wanted with taking the too many men penalty and they end up scoring, but I thought we responded really well after that."
The start, a 1-0 hole just 2:34 into the game, was quickly answered with goals from Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad and a pair from Jonathan Toews to give Chicago a 4-1 lead after 20 minutes of play. Kubalik added a pair of power-play tallies in the second period as Chicago matched its six-goal output from the final game of the regular season 143 days prior against San Jose.
The Oilers would make it interesting late, scoring a pair of goals with the goalie pulled, but the 12th-seeded Blackhawks saw things out to the final horn to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series that will continue on Monday night.
"We've got a group that got better as the year went along and now we've got a chance to show it," Colliton said of his group. "I think everyone's excited about that."
It was a bad afternoon for record holders in NHL playoff debuts and playoff scoring by rookies. Kubalik owns most of them now. And that's only a slight exaggeration.
No NHL player has ever scored as many points in a playoff debut. He had five.
No NHL rookie has ever collected as many points in the first period of a playoff debut. He had three by the first flood of the ice.
No Blackhawks rookie has scored as many points in any single playoff game. And he tied the franchise postseason single-game scoring record set by some legendary Chicago names: Mush March (3/26/36), Doug Bentley (3/28/44), Stan Mikita (4/4/73), Steve Larmer (4/30/90) and Jonathan Toews (5/7/10).
"Obviously I felt really good," he said after the game. "Everything went my way."
In a four-goal first period from the Blackhawks, Kubalik assisted on the final three tallies. First, a slick backhander to an open Toews with an acre of space to pick the corner behind Mike Smith. Then, an assist on a faceoff win, pushing the puck to the point where Olli Maatta's attempt deflected off Saad and in. Finally, a quick sling of the puck from behind the goal line across the top of the crease to once again find Toews, who quickly found twine for the second time.
"We always talk about protecting the puck. When we can get zone time like that, he's so good with protecting it, drawing guys to him, making plays," Saad said of his opposite winger on the top line. "Just an all-around complete player. I think that helps me and (Toews) a lot."
In the second period, Kubalik continued to cement his role as the top threat on a loaded top power play unit that features no fewer than three future Hall of Famers, as well as a pair of rookies.
Chicago's first man advantage of the period needed only five seconds to find the net. Kirby Dach sent a puck to Duncan Keith at the point, who quickly sent a cross-ice feed to Kubalik at the top of the weak-side circle for a blistering one-timer that ended Smith's night. On a late-period power play, he parked his 6-foot-2 frame in front of new netminder Mikko Koskinen and tipped home a Keith shot from the same point the rookie struck from 11 minutes before.
"He's really smart at finding those open spots, just kind of slipping behind guys," Toews said of his rookie winger. "He doesn't need a lot of time to get shots off. He's great at sending it at the net, especially with the speed of the game nowadays, when he gets into those dangerous area with how quick he gets the shots off. He's going to put a lot of pucks home. I think he's going to get better and better as we go along."
It didn't take long for the highly-touted Edmonton power play to pick up where it left off in the regular season. Just over 90 seconds in, likely in part due to some first-game jitters, the Blackhawks were called for too many men on the ice. Just a minute later, Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid -- you know the rest.
The Oilers struck again in the second on the man advantage with the scoring leaders reversed in roles and again in desperation time in the third, finishing 3-for-4 on the afternoon.
But on the final score sheet, the Blackhawks had three power play tallies of their own -- a 3-for-6 finish.
After the regular season power play finished 28th in the league, Chicago's 5-on-4 play on Saturday seemed to be equally as dangerous in its first revamped outing -- even more impressive when you consider Edmonton's penalty kill was second-best in the NHL this season.
"We worked on it a lot leading up. We liked the look of this unit, there's a lot of options," Toews said of the man advantage. "When guys like 'Duncs' and 'Kaner' have the puck, things are going to develop. It was nice to create those chances tonight but then see pucks go in. It's nice to get that feeling early in the series and it's going to be big for us down the road here."
"We tried to work on it in the practice for sure," Kubalik said of the training camp work Colliton's group put in. "In the season it wasn't very good, so I think it worked pretty well today. A couple goals to get the confidence going is always nice. We just tried to make it simple -- get pucks to the net, get pucks back after the bounce. It worked pretty well. I hope it's going to be like that."
Following a thrilling Game 1 victory, there are a lot of reasons for Blackhawks fans to be excited. But the team knows that it's only one game, and there's a dangerous, high-scoring and now irked, team that they go back up against on Monday night.
"We have to focus on what we think we do best and what's going to help us play the best," Keith said. "We know that they've got a good team with some very dangerous players in Draisaitl and McDavid especially, but it's one game and at the end of the day there are definitely some things that we're happy about tonight, but we're going to keep working on it and build off of it."
"Edmonton's going to be very desperate on Monday," Colliton said, "and we need to be better."