Chicago Blackhawks’ Eye On The Enemy: Expansion Golden Knights In Town

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 31: Malcolm Subban
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 31: Malcolm Subban /

Before the 2017-18 season, close to all hockey fans would’ve expected a January matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Vegas Golden Knights to occur with the Blackhawks holding the better record. That is far from the case tonight.

The expansion Vegas Golden Knights are visiting the United Center tonight for the first time in team history. While Chicago Blackhawks fans probably envisioned this as a gimme before the season began, it’s going to be anything but.

The Knights are dominating a large portion of the league, with their 56 points good for the Western Conference lead. Vegas is coming off a 2-1 loss in St. Louis on Thursday, but that was just the Knights’ 10th regulation defeat.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are back in last the Central Division after Colorado won last night. Chicago is the only team not in a Western Conference playoff spot right now that hasn’t played at least 40 games, so that’s some good news. A victory tonight would push the Blackhawks back to just a point behind Minnesota for the last wild-card bid.

Let’s take a closer look at the Knights and see what makes them tick — and how they’ve defied the odds to become an immediate regular-season success as a first-year expansion franchise.

Plenty of scoring

Vegas averages 3.49 goals per game, which is a really large number. The Knights are tied for first in the West in goals scored with Winnipeg, but have achieved that in two fewer games than the Jets.

Leading the way for Vegas is Florida castoff Jonathan Marchessault, who has 15 goals and 37 points. He’s joined by former Blue Jacket William Karlsson (20 goals, 33 points), ex-Blue David Perron (23 assists, 32 points) and former Bruin Reilly Smith (10 goals, 31 points) above the 30-point ledger.

It’s not like the Knights were given a murderer’s row to draft from at expansion, but they also didn’t get a bunch of bums, like many past expansion franchises. That’s led to great offensive balance, with 14 guys holding at least 10 points so far. (For perspective, the Blackhawks have 15 such guys with a roster that “should be better.”)

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  • Vegas turns in a so-so 18.8 percent success rate on the powerplay (18th in the league) and slots 15th in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage at just above 50. There are some big shooting percentage discrepancies that are helping, as James Neal (plus-3.1), Perron (3.4) and Erik Haula (6.2) are all converting well above their career marks.

    Vegas’ top two lines of Marchessault-Karlsson-Smith and Perron-Haula-Neal do a bulk of the scoring, obviously. It’s not easy to shut down both when they’re rolling in such a way, but having last change should at least aid the Blackhawks in that venture. The Blues limited the Knights to one goal Thursday, and Vegas is a just 10-8-1 on the road compared to a ridiculous 17-2-1 mark at home.

    Goaltending red-hot

    The one thing that should not be working as well as it is this season is the netminding. Marc-Andre Fleury was solid enough in his final couple years with the Penguins, but as soon as he suffered a concussion in the season’s first month, that should’ve been it for the Knights.

    That’s even more true when you consider backup Malcolm Subban and third-stringer Oscar Dansk have also been hurt. And somehow, it’s still working.

    You can’t point to the Knights’ defense, as it’s pretty much impossible to find a standout player among them. They’re all “guys,” and most of them would be deemed below-average players on other teams.

    It’s pretty much on the goalies, then. Fleury sees more than 32 shots per game, while Subban fields around 30 per start. And yet, Fleury boasts a .944 save percentage, and Subban a .922 mark.

    Subban is who the Blackhawks look to face tonight, and he’s won six consecutive starts. He checks in at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and plays athletically in net. This means he can probably make a fair number of sprawling stops if need be.

    Keys to victory for Blackhawks

    Well, limit Vegas’ shot opportunities, for one. Those top two lines especially need to be as close to neutralized as possible. It’s not going to be easy with the Blackhawks boasting neither a shutdown defensive pairing or a true puck-flipping forward line, so the impetus will be on coach Joel Quenneville to get the best possible matchups.

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    The Knights’ top two lines have some solid speed, the first line especially. Haula’s footwork exploits are also well-known around these parts. Brent Seabrook should be protected at all costs against these guys, and it would behoove Q not to toss out the Lance BoumaTommy WingelsJohn Hayden group against that top line too often.

    For the Blackhawks, they just need to keep up the puck-possession game they’ve displayed of late at 5-on-5. The Knights have some burnable defensive pairings. When Deryk Engelland is on your second duo, you’ve got some depth issues.

    Of course, it’d be nice if the Blackhawks also contributed on the powerplay, with Vegas’ 80.7 percent kill rate 20th in the NHL. But we shouldn’t hold our collective breath waiting for that to happen. So conversions at 5-on-5 should be emphasized.

    The Blackhawks need to keep Subban moving and test his athleticism. Usually, when that phrase is thrown around, it means a goalie likes to fly around the crease to make up for his lack of positioning. We saw this a lot with Scott Darling.

    If the Blackhawks can get Subban to lose his crease and keep him moving side-to-side, good things will happen — especially with playmakers like Patrick Kane, Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat.

    Lastly, Jeff Glass will have to be on his game. It appears he’s getting another start tonight, and hopefully his quickly-upped workload leads to consistent success for him — as it has for other goalies in the past. Glass should expect fast bursts from the Knights and never get caught sleeping with the puck out of his zone.

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    I wouldn’t necessarily say this game is there for the Blackhawks to win, despite them being more rested than the Knights, but there are underlying stats that suggest they can nail down a solid two points. They just can’t sleepwalk through part of the game, as they’re wont to do this year.