Blackhawks

Is Blackhawks' Round One strategy playing into Vegas Golden Knights' hands?

Blackhawks

The Blackhawks knew they'd have to elevate their game for Round One of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights, who won the No. 1 seed from the West for the first round in the round robin.

The Hawks upset of the West's No. 5 seeded Oilers and their top-ranked power play and second-place penalty kill during the regular season — not to mention Leon Draisailt and Connor McDavid — was no small feat.

Chicago head coach Jeremy Colliton and the Blackhawks know they're facing a more complete team — capable of rolling four lines — in the Golden Knights, as illustrated by Tuesday's 4-1 Game 1 decision over the Hawks.

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Instead of focusing on just shutting down two players like they did against Edmonton, the Blackhawks are tasked with shutting down every line against Vegas. 

The Hawks' tight-checking strategy may have played right into the Knights' hands in Game 1 as Chicago's forwards were so focused on their defensive responsibilities that they failed to generate much offense, recording a measly 20 shots on goal Tuesday night.

Related: Robin Lehner got the best of 'reverse psychology' with Blackhawks familiarity in Game 1

"I think we did a better job controlling the puck in the offensive zone in the second period and on," Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith said after Tuesday's game. "They're a rush team and we don't want to get into a track meet with them so once we can get them to stop in the D zone, we control the game a little bit more."

 

If Vegas is scared of Chicago's rush, the Hawks need to use it more. They can avoid a track meet, but how about a few races?

Colliton, 35, deserves beyond the benefit of the doubt in how he had the Blackhawks prepared for the Stanley Cup Qualifiers and in how they utilized a system that beat a good team as No. 12 to No. 5 underdogs at the opposition's home ice for his first postseason win in his second year as an NHL head coach. But, he needs to find a way to encourage the Hawks to play loose enough while limiting the Knights' chances in Game 2 that they can generate some of their own.

"We expect a tight series, we expect it to be a grind, we expect to face adversity," Colliton said after the loss in Game 1. "We did that, and we were right there. But we're going to have to find a way to win some of these games (and) we got to put ourselves in that position as well. Again, we just have to stick with it and they did it a little bit longer than us, and that's the message."

To Colliton's credit, Corey Crawford gave up two soft goals that he'd normally have, so the Hawks may have been able to squeak out a victory with their tight, conservative style on Tuesday.

"They’re a good team, they’re going to make you work for what you get," Colliton said. "But if you stick with it long enough and put pressure on the puck, we forced our turnovers, we got our chances. I thought we could’ve created even more if we were a little cleaner early on, especially in the first period. I thought there was more there for us. So we’ve just got to believe in that."

A way the Hawks can generate more in Game 2 on Thursday is by the forwards getting the puck to the D in the offensive zone, creating traffic in front of the net and getting shots off from the point, which played a big role in eliminating the Oilers in the play-in series.

"Yeah, we seemed to have a bit of success there last series. For whatever reason first game here it didn't happen as much," Hawks defenseman Duncan Keith said following Game 1. "Part of it is just keeping the game simple. Being able to get it low to high and then get the shot through. But every game's different."

Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, who made a beautiful play in Vegas' zone to steal the puck and feed David Kampf for the lone Hawks' goal in Game 1, knows there's more the Hawks can do to score some goals against the Knights.

"We had a lot of one-and-dones," Saad said after Tuesday's loss. "The biggest thing is getting out of our zone clean, playing hockey in their end. We had some shifts too where we pinned them in, we didn't get clean pucks to the net... For us, we just want to get as quick out of our zone as possible. When we get stuck in there, we're not going to get anything there."