Down two game to none, the Chicago Blackhawks were in a must-win situation in Game 3 vs. the Vegas Golden Knights Saturday night in Edmonton. Teams taking a 3-0 in the NHL win at a rate of over 98%. (NHL Tonight, Aug 15, 2020)
The Blackhawks had to throw caution to the wind, play desperate and hope that would be enough against a Golden Knights team that is the only undefeated team left in the playoffs and also arguably the deepest team in the NHL.
Before the game even started, the dreaded “unfit to play” bug struck the Golden Knights as Tomas Nosek and surprisingly Paul Stastny were not in the lineup. Leading scorer Max Pacioretty returned after missing Game 2, and making his playoff debut for the Golden Knights, Patrick Brown slotted into the center spot between regulars William Carrier and Ryan Reaves.
Can you believe I have made it this far without writing about the huge lineup news for the Golden Knights? Well, here it is. After going 2-0 to start the series and 7-0 as a member of the Golden Knights, Robin Lehner was replaced in goal by three-time Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury.
In every article I write, I have to inform you that regardless of what you hear read or think, there is not a goalie controversy for the Golden Knights. Nothing changed tonight.
In this, the most unusual of any NHL season, the Golden Knights will play back-to-back for Games 3 and 4. So there was very little doubt that Fleury will make his playoff debut this weekend. For reasons head coach Pete DeBoer will likely not share, he decided last night’s game was the one. We do not know who will start in goal for the Golden Knights later tonight, but it would be a safe bet that it is Lehner.
So without further adieu, here are three takeaways from the Golden Knights 2-1 win over the Blackhawks.
No Sign of Rust on The Flower
After allowing four goals on 17 shots in the round-robin game against the St. Louis Blues, The Flower has sat the last three games for the Golden Knights. It would be fair to expect a little rust, but that was not the case. As expected, the Blackhawks brought the play to the Golden Knights in the first period, outshooting them 9-6 out chancing the Golden Knights by a wide margin and winning the period basically everywhere but on the scoreboard. In the end, the Flower made 26 saves on 27 shots and no sign of rust,
“He was our best player tonight.”Vegas Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer, post-game press conference, August 15th, 2020
Reversal of Periods
During the Stanley Cup Playoffs (including round-robin), the second period has been by far the worst for the Golden Knights. They have been outscored 12-9 in the middle frame. It is exactly the opposite in the third period where the Golden Knights have outscored their opponents 10-2. In Saturday’s game, things went completely off-script. In the second, the Golden Knight completely outplayed the Blackhawks, outshot them 12-5 significantly out-chanced them, and dominated the play for most of the period.
In the third period, it was a whole other story. The Blackhawks played their most desperate hockey, trying to avoid falling into the deadly 3-0 hole. They took the play to the Golden Knights from the drop of the puck and piled up chance after chance against the Golden Knights. The Blackhawks were so dominant that they held the Golden Knights without a shot for 9:51 of the period. The only mistake by Fleury was when his former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Olli Mattaa slipped a wrist shot between his arm and his body, making it a one-shot game at 2-1.
The remaining half of the third period was back and forth with the Knights finally getting some quality chances and landing shots on Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford. He kept the Knights off the scoreboard and for the first time in the playoffs the Golden Knights lost the third period.
The Keys Are the Keys
Going into this series the overwhelming majority of the experts (including me, though I am not an expert) picked the Golden Knights to win the series. They sighted numerous keys to the series, everything from overall depth to the coaching advantage DeBoer had over the youngest coach in the NHL Jeremy Colliton.
To a man (and woman), they all said that if the Blackhawks had any chance to upset the Golden Knights, Crawford would have to be the best player in the series. Unfortunately, while Crawford has shown flashes of brilliance throughout the series, his overall 10 goals against and .901 save percentage is far from what it would take to lead the Blackhawks to an upset series win over the Golden Knights.
Through three games, it appears that the pundits are spot-on in their analysis.
The depth of the Golden Knights is the absolute difference in this series. While star Blackhawks center Patrick Kane is playing 25-plus minutes a night, the Golden Knights continue to roll four lines at the Blackhawks. After Kane and captain Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks are reduced to a bunch of young, albeit talented, kids. Their defense is just not big, strong, or experienced enough to handle the relentless Golden Knights pressure.
Related: 11 NHL Teams Without a Stanley Cup
Goaltending is the other major difference, with arguably the best goaltending combination of Lehner and Fleury backstopping the Golden Knights to a 3-0 stranglehold on this series.
As this article began, teams going up 3-0 win over 98% of the time. While the Blackhawks have played very well during the course of the series, there is little doubt that the Golden Knights will be moving on to the second round.
That is not taking anything away from the Blackhawks, again they have played well. In fact, you could easily say they have overachieved for a team that got a golden ticket into the playoffs because of COVID-19. This will be a great learning experience for their young upcoming stars like Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik.
The Golden Knights need to keep their foot on the gas and close out the Blackhawks in four games tonight. No reason to give the Blackhawks any hope and the extra rest will do them good.
Maybe not tonight, but four down 12 to go is going to happen pretty soon.