The Blackhawks' bubble has been popped.
After entering the NHL's expanded postseason format as the 23rd of 24 total seeds, the Blackhawks pulled off a rather stunning play-in round upset of the Edmonton Oilers to secure their spot in the Round of 16. That landed them a matchup versus the top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights and, unfortunately for Chicago, things didn't go so well from there. Five games later and they're leaving the playoff bubble in Edmonton.
So, where did things go wrong for Chicago? Let's take a look at some of the reasons why the Blackhawks are heading home.
An utter mismatch
From the outset, this didn't look a series the Blackhawks were destined to win. Sometimes you can look at a team and recognize that, while they may not be as good as their opponent on paper, their strengths or style create a mismatch against a superior opponent. (Think the Blue Jackets vs. Maple Leafs in the play-in round.)
That wasn't at all the case with the Blackhawks vs. Golden Knights. Not only did Vegas look better on paper but their strengths (offensive zone possession and forechecking) were perfectly aligned to take advantage of Chicago's weak spots (lack of defensive zone structure and discipline). If things went the way we thought they would, it was going to be a quick series. And, as it turns out, they did... and it was.
That brings us to...
Inability to suppress Golden Knights' attack
The possession numbers in this series were overwhelmingly in Vegas' favor, which shouldn't really come as much of a surprise considering how well Vegas can cycle the puck and how unreliable Chicago's team defense can be. Let's take a quick look at the 5v5 numbers in the five games this series, courtesy of Natural Stat Trick:
- Shot attempts: 305 - 202, VGK
- Shots on net: 158 - 96, VGK
- High-danger chances: 62 - 32, VGK
- Expected goals: 13.4 - 6.9, VGK
- Goals: 13-8, VGK
The Golden Knights did an excellent job of sustaining pressure in the offensive zone and generating opportunities while keeping the Blackhawks on their heels at 5v5. Corey Crawford was basically under siege this entire series and, honestly, it's a credit to him that things weren't a lot worse for Chicago on the scoreboard. Crawford stopped 172 of 187 shots (.920 save percentage) he faced in the series (at 5v5: 145 of 158, .918 save percent).
The Toews line
For the Blackhawks to have any chance in this series, they needed the top of their lineup -- including Jonathan Toews' top line -- to have an unbelievable series. They weren't able to do enough, and Toews' unit had an especially rough go of things.
The Blackhawks captain was able to get on the board with a goal in Game 5 but he had just two points in the series, as did Dominik Kubalik. It's hard to pin a lot of blame on Toews individually when he played with two inexperienced wingers on the youngest team in the playoffs, but Chicago's top unit had a really difficult time matching up with Vegas' top forwards in this series.
At 5v5, Toews' line had just 36 percent of shot attempts and 33 percent of shots. That unit contributed one goal and were on the ice for five against. You're not going to win too many games when one of your top lines is run over to that extent.
This leads us into...
Simply put, it wasn't the best series from young Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton, especially when his team had its back against the wall. It was clear that adjustments needed to be made, especially to the top line, but Colliton made some questionable lineup decisions -- none more perplexing than inserting John Quenneville on Toews' wing in Game 5.
Quenneville was a healthy scratch for the entire series leading up to Game 5 and suddenly he gets a slot on the top line in an elimination game? Uh, okay. Quenneville's presence did pretty much nothing for Chicago. Making matters worse, Colliton continued to play him even when it was apparent that it wasn't working. In 13:28 of 5v5 ice time, the Blackhawks were out-shot 3-10 and out-attempted 7-16 with Quenneville on the ice.
By the way, that ice time includes Quenneville being trotted out with less than three minutes remaining in the 3rd period while Chicago was down by one goal. Pretty inexcusable. Part of making adjustments is recognizing when your adjustments aren't working, and Colliton seemed to show an alarming lack of response or urgency when it came to water filling the boat.
Again, the defense
It can't really be said enough... this Blackhawks team needs a defensive overhaul before they can truly be taken seriously. Just like it's hard to blame Toews for not being able to carry his line, it's hard to blame a 37-year-old Duncan Keith for not being able to stand tall as the pillar of this defensive group. Keith averaged over 25 minutes of ice time in this series and things didn't go all that well for him. His lone contribution on the scoresheet was an assist in Game 4 and he was a minus-6 in the series (on the ice for four goals for, 10 against at 5v5).
Honestly, the Blackhawks put up a good fight but this group just wasn't good enough to withstand an elite team like Vegas, and the most glaring issue is the defense. The onus is (and has been) on the front office to find more stability on the back end and, at this point, I'm not sure Stan Bowman is the guy for the job.