As David Bowie would say, “Ground control to Major Tom …”
After being blasted into space, flying high, in their series with Edmonton Oilers, the Chicago Blackhawks lost their mojo in Game 1 against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Did anybody expect a different result in the opener of the Chicago-Vegas series than a 4-1 Golden Knights win, where the Blackhawks were coming off an emotional knock-out of the Oilers in the play-in round and is now running up against a team that is not the same animal as the Connor McDavid-Leon Draisaitl Oilers? Deeper, frustrating to play against.
“Vegas plays differently, very structured, a heavy team,” said Hawks’ Calvin de Haan.
“Edmonton has really high-end players with speed. It kind of breaks down the structure of the game. Vegas played a more controlled situation.”
In case you’re wondering, these are why the Oilers lost, without de Haan saying so.
But back to the Vegas team, they were the second stingiest defensive team with just 29.3 shots allowed per game in the regular-season. The Hawks only had 20 shots, tied for fewest all season. The Golden Knights didn’t allow a Hawks’ shot for 10 and a half minutes at one stretch in the opening period. The only time Robin Lehner looked in trouble was when he lost his skate blade twice and was flopping around like a mackerel out of the sea.
“First time it’s ever happened to me, tough for a goalie with one skate,” said Lehner, who couldn’t have made a save if he wanted to.
But he didn’t really have to.
“We had one chance by Stromer (Dylan Strome) where he couldn’t get on two feet but other than that, I don’t know if we had a whole lot of chances to shoot,” said Hawks captain Jonathan Toews. “It’s easy to see after the fact that Lehner was missing a skate blade, not a good situation for a goaltender. They get in the shot lanes, and we just weren’t going to air it out.”
The Hawks’ Brandon Saad set up David Kampf for a short-handed goal with a terrific play on Shea Theodore and a nifty back pass to the Chicago centre.
“Lots of one-and-dones,” said Saad, “Not enough hockey in their end, they stuck us in our end and we couldn’t get anything done.”
Indeed, only six Hawks forwards had shots. They are getting nothing out of Alex Nylander, against the Oilers or Vegas. Five games, no points, 10 shots.
The Hawks were only down 2-1 after 40 minutes, though. But like they did in the round-robin seeding portion, Vegas gets stronger in the third period, where they are plus-9 in their last four games. The first Smith goal should have been stopped by Corey Crawford, but it bounced off his shoulder and hopped in. He looked beatable in Game 1, nowhere near his terrific play from Game 4 against the Oilers.
Two problems for the Hawks: All those shots that got through against the Oilers for tips or redirects didn’t happen against Vegas, because Chicago couldn’t keep possession of the puck long enough to use their blueliners, and didn’t work hard enough to get to the net for deflections.
And Patrick Kane, as he was in the Oilers series, looks like a good player but not a great player right now. He has 18 shots but only one goal in five games. His line with rookie centre Kirby Dach and Alex DeBrincat had three shots against Lehner and didn’t have the puck nearly enough, five-on-five. They need Kane to be his usual dynamic self.
Maybe it’s time to put Kane back with Toews, for good.
“Kaner plays a lot, he’s got a big motor, he can play on different lines,” said coach Jeremy Colliton. “You don’t rule anything out, we’ll turn over every rock.”
Vegas is so deep, their second line with Paul Stastny, Jonathan Marchessault and Smith was more more dangerous (11 shots) than their first line with William Karlsson, Max Pacioretty, just back from an undisclosed injury, and Mark Stone (six total shots). Chicago also doesn’t have a pounding duo on a fourth line like Ryan Reaves and Will Carrier to wear teams down.
Pacioretty had four shots but was a shadow of his usual self because he is getting to the party late.
“He was a little disappointed but I had to remind him he hadn’t played a hockey game in five months. He only had one or two scrimmages (in camp) before he got hurt. He’s in good shape but the game timing, you need to play games,” said Vegas coach Pete DeBoer.
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