Pacioretty returns as Knights face surprising Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks weren’t supposed to reach the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t expected to be the top-seeded team in the Western Conference.

Both teams pulled off upsets in the qualifying series and round-robin format, respectively, setting the stage for their unlikely first-round matchup beginning Tuesday afternoon in Edmonton.

“The real fun begins,” said Chicago forward Jonathan Toews, who won Stanley Cup titles with the Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

The Blackhawks were last in the Central Division and 12th in the Western Conference when play was halted because of the coronavirus outbreak on March 11, leaving them seven points back of the final playoff spot with 12 games left.

Normally, only the top eight teams from each conference qualify for the postseason, but the NHL decided to place the fifth- through 12th-place teams in a five-game qualifying series, with the winner advancing to the first round.

Matched against the Edmonton Oilers, who were second in the Pacific Division and fifth in the West when play was halted, the Blackhawks stunned the Oilers by winning the qualifying series in four games.

“I think we all know nowadays that you’ve got to sneak in that first round and anything can happen,” Toews said. “For us, it didn’t matter what seed we were. We knew what we were doing late in the season, and that helped us play good hockey and win games. We got right back to that.”

Vegas was first in the Pacific Division when play was halted and third in the West. The Golden Knights took on each of the other teams among the top four from their conference and beat all three, earning the top seed through the round-robin format.

“It was a big goal to get the first seed,” said Vegas forward Alex Tuch, who scored in overtime to beat the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday and clinch the top seed. “To be able to get that first seed means a lot, and I guess personally, it’s probably one of my bigger goals in the playoffs.”

The Golden Knights played Chicago once each in October, November and December, going 2-1-0 in those matchups.

Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore said he kept a close eye on the Blackhawks during their qualifying series games, and he continues to be impressed by their combination of speed, skill and sharp goaltending.

“They’ve got everything,” Theodore said. “It’s going to be a good matchup, but I think just for our group, the confidence boost playing through these couple of games and really finding our game, that was key for us, and going forward we’re just going to focus on that.”

The Golden Knights are expected to get back a key player, forward Max Pacioretty, who led Vegas with 32 goals and 66 points during the regular season.

He did not accompany the Golden Knights to Canada for the round-robin games because of a minor injury, but he reportedly has arrived in Edmonton and cleared quarantine, making him available for Game 1.

“It gives us more depth. It adds our leading scorer back into our lineup,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “He helps our power play, he helps in a lot of different areas.”