Take 5: Getting to know the Golden Knights’ playoff opponent

Vegas, which swept the season series with Chicago, will be the heavy favorite in the seven-game series.

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AP

St. Louis Blues goalie Jordan Binnington (50) looks on as the Vegas Golden Knights celebrate a goal during second-period NHL hockey playoff game action in Edmonton, Alberta, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Sun, Aug 9, 2020 (2 a.m.)

The matchup is set: The Golden Knights, the top seed in the Western Conference, will take on the 12th-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the official playoffs.

Vegas swept the Western Conference round-robin and the Blackhawks knocked off the No. 5 Oilers in a qualifying series to set up this series.

Here are five things to know about Vegas’ first-round opponent.

The original crew

If you haven’t tuned into many Chicago games since the dynasty days, welcome back. You haven’t missed much. The Blackhawks have struggled since winning the Stanley Cup in 2015, with no playoff series wins and missing the playoffs altogether the past two seasons.

But all the players you remember are still there. Patrick Kane is still a superstar, with 33 goals and 84 points this year. Jonathan Toews is having a career renaissance with 60 points this season. Duncan Keith may not be a Norris-caliber defenseman anymore, but he’s still playing 24 minutes a night on the blue line. Corey Crawford remains the goalie and had a tremendous year behind a porous defense.

Chicago is assimilating younger players into bigger roles as its rebuild progresses, but you’ll still see plenty of old friends you may not have seen since they were raising multiple Cups.

Scary young forwards

Who are those young players? A Calder finalist as Rookie of the Year, a No. 3 overall pick and the player selected right after Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in the 2015 draft and his old junior teammate.

First up is Dominik Kubalik, who came out of nowhere to score 30 goals, tops among NHL rookies and 17th overall. He had a five-point night in the Game 1 victory against the Oilers in the qualifying round, and is a potent threat on the power-play.

Kubalik may be the Calder finalist, but Kirby Dach might end up as the best player on the team in a few seasons. Dach turned 19 in January, making him the youngest player on either team. He was the third overall pick last summer, and forced the Blackhawks to keep him on the roster with his early-season play. He had three points in three games against Vegas this season, including his first-career goal in his second-career game in October.

Dylan Strome is the forgotten man in a loaded 2015 draft, and after struggling early in his career in Arizona, found new life when he was traded to Chicago. He had 51 points in 58 games after the trade last season, and though he didn’t keep up that pace this year, still managed 38 points in 58 games.

Then there’s Alex DeBrincat, who was behind just Kane, Toews and Kubalik in scoring for the Blackhawks with 45 points this year. He played on the Erie Otters in junior hockey with Strome (and some guy named McDavid), and helps form an enviable core of young forward talent.

Not as scary defense

You may have noticed the last section focused on Chicago’s forward group. That’s a positive for the Blackhawks where the defense was not. Keith is still the anchor of that unit, but finding an heir-apparent as the No. 1 defenseman has been a challenge.

The Blackhawks have relied on Connor Murphy, Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta this season, and the results have been a lot of shots on net. The Blackhawks allowed more shots per game (35.1) than any team in the league and the third-most high-danger chances per game, according to Natural Stat Trick.

In three regular season games, the Golden Knights fired off shot totals of 34, 42 and 37. In their four qualifying games, Chicago allowed more than 34 shots per game. Vegas will have no trouble getting the puck to the net to put a major strain on Chicago’s goalie.

Robin Lehner’s old team

That goalie will most likely be Crawford, but a February trade between these two clubs adds intrigue to that position. They flipped goalies, with Robin Lehner coming to Vegas and Malcolm Subban going to Chicago. Lehner might start, and if anything happens to Crawford, Subban could see the net against his old team.

Lehner was polite Saturday when discussing his old team, but it’s clear he wasn’t happy about how things ended.

Here’s what he said in February after the trade:

“I went to Chicago to help them out and got promises of getting a fair chance to play. I came there with a good mindset, fit into the team. I didn’t play much in the beginning, or middle, beginning of the season, even if I played well, had a good camp. Eventually, I took over and I won — I think I won like nine out of 10, 12 out of 15 — and we walked up one point out of a playoff spot. Then, all of the sudden, I found myself on the bench for no reason. That was tough. Plus, negotiations totally died out.

I thought there was a future there and I did everything to have a future there and I still couldn’t get a future there. So, in the end, the last couple weeks were tough mentally to kind of find the motivation needed.”

It’s extra personal for the goalies, which adds to the excitement of watching these two teams meet in a playoff series.

No. 12 seed

The Blackhawks upset the favored Oilers to reach the playoff round, but remember where Chicago was when the season paused.

The Blackhawks were out of a playoff spot and had just traded one of its goalies and its best offensive defenseman in Erik Gustafsson. They had no expectations for the playoffs, and instead were looking at another draft lottery.

Suddenly they found themselves in a qualifying round and ousted a superior team in the Oilers. Now they take on the Golden Knights, a team without the defensive or goaltending deficiencies that plagued Edmonton, but without the top-end forward talent the Oilers possessed and the Blackhawks overcame.

Anything can happen in the postseason of course, and a Blackhawks victory over the Golden Knights wouldn’t be a blip in the radar of historic upsets. But it would certainly be an upset. The Golden Knights earned the top seed and Chicago squeaked in as a 12 seed. Vegas, which swept the season series with Chicago, will be the heavy favorite in the seven-game series.

Justin Emerson can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Justin on Twitter at twitter.com/@j15emerson.

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