Blackhawks to face Golden Knights, Robin Lehner in Stanley Cup playoffs
Lehner and Corey Crawford, teammates for most of the season with the Hawks, may start for opposing sides in a playoff series.
Robin Lehner and Corey Crawford battled throughout much of the regular season for the Blackhawks’ No. 1 goalie job.
A thousand twists in the road later, the two elite goalies — or at least their two teams — now will battle each other in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Golden Knights, Lehner’s team since being dealt by the Hawks at the trade deadline in February, beat the Avalanche 4-3 in overtime Saturday to clinch the top seed in the Western Conference.
That sets up a best-of-seven series starting next week, with the schedule yet to be announced, against the 12th-seeded Hawks, who advanced to the round of 16 by upsetting the Oilers in the qualifying round.
‘‘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, their whole organization. But I really like it here. We’re a great hockey team, and we’ll do well against them.’’
When Hawks general manager Stan Bowman traded Lehner — a pending free agent in line for a big contract — for goalie Malcolm Subban, prospect Slava Demin and a second-round draft pick, it seemed there was no way the Hawks could run into him again this season.
The Hawks and Knights already had completed their three-game season series — with the Knights winning twice — and the Hawks’ playoff hopes were virtually nonexistent.
But a global pandemic, an unprecedented change in the postseason format and the right combination of outcomes in the last week have set up a golden — no pun intended — narrative.
Now Knights coach Peter DeBoer must decide whether he fully will embrace it. He can start Lehner, who is 5-0-0 with a .924 save percentage in his first five starts for the Knights, or Marc-Andre Fleury, who has been to five Stanley Cup Finals but posted his worst save percentage (.905) since 2006 this season.
‘‘We haven’t even thought about Game 1 yet; we’re just going to enjoy tonight,’’ DeBoer said Saturday. ‘‘The idea of playing both guys [in the round-robin games] was [that] I believe we’re going to need both guys and both guys are going to play. We’ll see how that rolls out.’’
If Lehner does play, there almost certainly will be some passionate emotions involved. After his news conference Saturday, Lehner tweeted a GIF captioned, ‘‘Awkward Alert.’’
And his kind words about the Hawks somewhat contradicted his scathing quotes from his introductory interview Feb. 27 in Las Vegas.
‘‘I went to Chicago to help them out and got promises of getting a fair chance to play,’’ Lehner told reporters. ‘‘I didn’t play much in the beginning or the middle-beginning of the season, even if I played really well and had a good camp. Eventually I took over, and I won, like, nine out of 10 [games] . . . and we walked up one point behind a playoff spot. Then all of a sudden, I found myself on the bench for no reason. That was tough. Plus, negotiations [on a contract extension] had totally died out.’’
Lehner and Crawford always appeared to have a good relationship in the locker room, but Lehner visibly soured about his situation and was far less outspoken in the weeks leading up to the trade.
If anything can reopen those wounds, it’s a playoff series against the Hawks with livelihoods on the line.
‘‘We’ve got a pretty good task against Chicago here,’’ Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault said. ‘‘They’ve definitely earned some respect in the league. They’re one of the best teams for the past 10 years, so definitely we’re going to focus on that.’’