The Chicago Blackhawks did what very few thought they could do. They took the gift of a playoff berth based of a post-pandemic 24-team format and turned it into a trip to the real deal. That’s right, the Western Conference 12th place Blackhawks dispatched the fifth place Edmonton Oilers in four games to become one of the final 16 teams of the original playoff format. They will now face the first-seed Vegas Golden Knights in a best-of-seven series.
The Golden Knights are a heavy, deep and talented team that finished third in the West this regular season. They will NOT be an easy opponent. But anything can happen in the playoffs, and the Blackhawks are going into this series with a ton of confidence. They had to do a lot of things right to beat the Oilers. Let’s discuss what we learned from this hard-fought series, and what it could mean moving forward.
Never Underestimate Toews
Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews is a leader on an off the ice. We all know this. The 13-year veteran is one of the most successful and respected men in hockey, with all the accolades to go with it. He also has a knack for performing his best on the biggest stage. He did so again in this qualifying round.
While our Hockey Writers’ team was debating between Patrick Kane and Dominik Kubalik for the winner of most goals and points in this series, Toews had other ideas. He ran away with both honors, notching four goals and seven points in four games. Kubalik, Toews’ linemate, wasn’t far behind with three goals and three assists (6 points). Kane was a bit quiet this series with a goal and three assists (4 points). But it wasn’t for lack of trying, as he led the team with 17 shots on goal (Toews was second with 12).
The captain also stepped up in a big way at the faceoff dot. All in all, he won 57-of-103 draws for a 55.3% success rate. Teammate David Kampf was the closest behind him at 51.5%, but he only took 33 draws. It never ceases to amaze me how essential Toews’ faceoff skills are for the Blackhawks. He takes and wins the majority of the draws, giving his team the edge in possession every time.
Toews’ intensity and determination sets the standard for the entire team. In this series he was all over the ice, winning board battles and creating havoc in front of the net, all while being responsible defensively. Here’s the game-winning goal that also clinched the series. It was scored by Kubalik, but Toews did all the dirty work.
If Toews can continue with this playoff beast mode, it could spell really good things for the Blackhawks.
Defensive Game Plan
The Blackhawks are not known for the best defensive corps, but in this series they still somehow managed to utilize their defense as an asset. First off, they don’t have to defend as much if they have the puck. That being the objective, they committed to supporting each other. So whenever the Blackhawks did have possession, the idea was to have the blue line contribute offensively as much as they could. Defenseman Connor Murphy described it best.
It’s always part of your game plan. Especially [since] our forwards draw good attention when they’re entering the zone… They do a good job of drawing wingers down to them, and it leaves a couple of open shots [for our defensemen].(Source: ‘Point shots through traffic creating steady stream of “dirty goals” for Blackhawks’, The Chicago Sun-Times – 8/6/20)
The Blackhawks scored 16 goals against the Oilers, and half of them were initiated by defensemen. Olli Maatta scored twice, and his defensive partner Slater Koekkoek found the back of the net once. In addition to that, five goals were attained by forwards deflecting a defenseman’s shot.
In Game 1, Brandon Saad notched a goal off the initial shot by Maatta, and Kubalik tipped in an attempt by Duncan Keith. Matthew Highmore redirected shots by Koekkoek in Game 3, and Keith in Game 4. And finally, Toews was credited with a goal off a Murphy rocket in Game 3 for the game-winner.
Not a bad game plan to get the defense involved offensively. In this series it worked.
Solid Penalty Kill
One of the things the Blackhawks improved this past season was their penalty kill. They went from last in the league in the 2018-19 season to ninth in the 2019-20 season. They certainly needed that against the best power play unit in the league in the Oilers.
Throughout the entire series, the Blackhawks killed off 12 of the 17 penalties they took, including all five in the all-important Game 4. They buckled down and came up big when they needed to.
The Golden Knights are no slouches on the power play, ranking ninth during the regular season. The Blackhawks must continue to be strong on this side of special teams. But the good news is they know they can be.
Side note: The Golden Knights ranked 27th in the league this season on the penalty kill. I’d like to think the Blackhawks’ power play smells blood in this area for the upcoming series.
Crawford is Back
Netminder Corey Crawford had a rough road leading up to this series. He missed Phase 2 workouts and all but the last day of training camp because he was recovering from COVID-19. Needless to say, he had minimal time to prepare for the campaign against the Oilers.
He did indeed look a little rusty to start out, allowing 13 goals for a combined .861 save percentage in the first three games. But Game 4 was where he really started to look like the two-time Stanley Cup winner he is. He stopped 43-of-45 shots for a .956 SV%, including all 20 shots thrown at him in the third period when the game was on the line.
Crawford has looked more comfortable in the crease each game, and Game 4 was a great indicator he’s back to his old self, dialed in and ready for another series. Here’s what he had to say after the game.
Corey Crawford: "I felt way better playing each game and seeing different scenarios and situations. Once you get more of that, the better you feel. Tonight was obviously better." #Blackhawks— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) August 8, 2020
The word on the street is the Golden Knights will likely utilize former Blackhawk netminder Robin Lehner in this upcoming series. Many think Lehner will be extra motivated to beat the team that traded him away. But don’t think for one minute Crawford won’t be just as motivated to prove he was the right goalie to keep.
More Strengths for the Blackhawks
While all of the the above are important aspects of what the Blackhawks bring to the table, they still have other strengths they capitalized on in the qualifying round. Here are a few things that come to mind:
- Rookie Kirby Dach looks stronger and more confident. He boasts four assists in the series, and has been promoted to the second line alongside Kane and Alex DeBrincat.
- Speaking of Kane, he might have been quiet in the qualifying round, but you can’t hold a superstar like him down for long. Look for more production from Kane in this series; it just seems inevitable.
- For the most part, the Blackhawks were able to roll four lines on a consistent basis against the Oilers. With the exception of Drake Caggiula and Highmore, all other forwards averaged over 12 minutes of ice time or more. And Highmore actually managed two goals and one assist in his 9:43 average TOI. The Blackhawks will need everyone to step up even more against the Golden Knights.
- Finally, the Blackhawks still have that championship pedigree to lead the way. Their core players know how to handle the pressure and the ups and downs of the playoffs. They can lean on that experience and winning mentality when the going gets tough.
Can any of these positives carry over for the Blackhawks against the well-rounded first-seed Golden Knights? It’s hard to say. It won’t be easy, but I wouldn’t count the Blackhawks out just yet.