Saturday afternoon, after eliminating the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers in Game 4 on Friday night, the Blackhawks learned they'll be facing the Vegas Golden Knights and very likely a certain former Hawks goalie in Round One.
Robin Lehner was in net for the Knights in their overtime win against the Colorado Avalanche to help Vegas grab the No. 1 seed in the West for Round One, pitting them against the Blackhawks, who were the No. 12 seed in the qualifying round.
Lehner has seen the majority of the starts in net for the Knights at the beginning of the postseason tournament over three-time Stanley Cup champ Marc-Andre Fleury.
The 2019 Vezina Trophy finalist was traded from Chicago to Vegas ahead of Feb. 24's trade deadline. He was 16-10-5 as a Hawk during the 2019-20 regular season with a 3.01 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage prior to the move.
Following Saturday's game, Lehner was asked about facing the Blackhawks and his former goalie partner Corey Crawford in Round One and if playing with them earlier this season carries an advantage.
"I don't know. All I know is it's going to be fun playing them," Lehner said. "They're a very good hockey team and I have a lot of respect for them, the whole organization... but I think I really like it here (with Vegas), we're a great hockey team."
The 29-year-old netminder got off to a hot start with Vegas ahead of the NHL pause on March 12 going 3-0-0 with 1.67 goals-against average and .940 save percentage.
The Cleveland Indians have the best starting rotation in baseball.
And while that might have been an opinion back before the abbreviated 2020 campaign got underway, it’s a fact at the moment. The Indians’ starting staff leads baseball with a 2.09 ERA and 124 strikeouts. Shane Bieber, Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, Zach Plesac and Aaron Civale — not to mention Adam Plutko, who’s also made one nice start — have dominated opposing lineups.
The Indians have allowed four or fewer runs in each of their first 16 games. The only team who had a a longer such streak to start a season was the 1981 A's (21 games).— Mandy Bell (@MandyBell02) August 8, 2020
Often, they’ve dominated the White Sox lineup.
The South Siders have seen Cleveland’s starting pitchers five times in their first 15 games of the season, and an offense that was talked up as so capable before and since Opening Day has done very little against this superb collection of hurlers. A 2-3 record against the Indians following Saturday’s 7-1 defeat could certainly be much worse. But in five games against them, the White Sox have scored a total of 13 runs. And only five of those came against the starting pitchers.
The first two games of this weekend series at Guaranteed Rate Field have featured more exemplary starting-pitching performances by the Indians. Civale threw seven one-run innings Friday night, and Plesac was again excellent with six shutout innings Saturday afternoon. Neither performance matched what they did against this same White Sox team a little more than a week ago in Cleveland. But it certainly was enough to keep the White Sox bats quiet.
And Bieber, currently running away with the AL Cy Young Award — he’s got an 0.83 ERA and 35 strikeouts in three starts — awaits in Sunday night's nationally televised showdown.
If the White Sox are going to keep pace in the race for the AL Central crown, they’ll need to figure out a way to solve these Indians pitchers.
“These are the types of guys we have to get after,” manager Rick Renteria said after Saturday’s game. “To win, you have to put together the focus, the concentration. It’s not easy, trust me, when you’re facing guys like this. But you have to put things together enough to start a line and keep it moving and scratch away and claw and score a run or two here and there.”
The much discussed White Sox lineup, remade during the offseason with the additions of Yasmani Grandal, Edwin Encarnación and Nomar Mazara and the promotion of Luis Robert, has certainly showed what it’s capable of this season. In the second game of the year, it hung 10 runs on the Minnesota Twins. In back-to-back wins over the Kansas City Royals last weekend, the White Sox exploded for a combined 20 runs on 35 hits.
And granted, this lineup has not been at full strength for even one game this season. The injury bug has chomped down on the White Sox and not let go. Mazara, the team's starting right fielder, started the season on the injured list. Currently, starting shortstop Tim Anderson and starting second baseman Nick Madrigal are on the IL. Encarnación is sidelined, too.
But the White Sox bats have been cool for a bit now, with just nine runs scored in the last five games against the Indians and Milwaukee Brewers. That hasn’t always equaled losses, and they’re 2-3 in those five games, with the pitching coming through to carry the day in certain spots.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, though, a cold snap, a growing list of injuries, three games against Cleveland’s elite pitching and, as Renteria pointed out Saturday, a little fatigue in this most unusual of seasons makes for an unproductive recipe.
“We are facing a club that has solid pitching, really good pitching. And we have to bring our game up,” Renteria said. “It doesn’t matter if you are a little fatigued or tired. Nobody cares about that. The reality is you have to be able to put together and string together really good at-bats, which is not easy to do, but it’s what we have to do.
“I think that maybe today’s game will be a great learning tool for us to understand. No one is going to give us anything. You don’t just turn on and turn off offenses. They are grown through a process, focus, concentration and a prepared attack. When we do that, we are really good.
“For me it’s just a blip. We have to keep playing and keep fighting. There’s not a whole lot of time left, and we are going to try to do the best we possibly can and keep moving forward in a positive direction.”
Since they reported to the South Side in early July for “Summer Camp,” the players have talked about this odd season, how in a 60-game sprint to October every game matters and means a lot. Modest winning streaks and losing streaks can tug an entire season in any direction. Games against division foes mean even more, with each set of 10 games against division rivals representing a full sixth of the schedule.
The White Sox seemed capable of going toe to toe with the Twins and Indians when the season began, though the task was always going to be a tall one. The Twins have one of baseball’s most dangerous lineups, and the White Sox can attest after a pair of opening-weekend thumpings those bats delivered. The Indians have the game’s finest rotation, and the White Sox know that well, too, after five games against their top-flight chuckers.
Despite the dominance of the Cleveland rotation, the two teams have taken turns in second place in the division standings over the first two games of this series. It's not like the AL Central has slipped away from the White Sox just yet.
Indeed, they have the potential to be the most balanced among the group of division contenders, with a potentially potent lineup and a potentially fearsome pitching staff. Injuries are no excuse, especially when the whole league’s going through the same thing, but it’s difficult to live up to that full potential when so many key cogs are on the injured list.
The White Sox won’t use that to wriggle free of any responsibility, of course, and they’ll keep on trying to solve the Twins’ lineup and the Indians’ rotation. If they want to live up to the high expectations they set for themselves before the season started, they’ll have to. There's no other option.
“We’ll have to regroup and go back after them,” Renteria said. “These are the type teams we’ll have to beat. We have to string things together and pull out some victories.”