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January 18, 2021

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Golden Knights on a roll, will face Chicago in first round of playoffs

Robin Lehner vs. Colorado

Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via AP

Colorado Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen (96) tries to get the puck past Vegas Golden Knights goalie Robin Lehner (90) during the third period of an NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round game in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020.

Updated Sunday, Aug. 9, 2020 | 12:08 a.m.

Golden Knights Beat Avalanche in Overtime

Colorado Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer (31) stops Vegas Golden Knights' Paul Stastny (26) during the first period of an NHL Stanley Cup qualifying round game in Edmonton, Alberta, Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020. Launch slideshow »

Golden Knights’ goalie Robin Lehner didn’t think he would have to see his old team again, but the pandemic and an expanded NHL postseason foiled those plans.

Suddenly, the Chicago Blackhawks squeezed into the new look postseason, meaning Lehner and his Golden Knights only needed to beat the Avalanche on Saturday to draw them in the first round.

Lehner did indeed help the Golden Knights beat Colorado, 4-3 in overtime, and secure the top seed in the Western Conference. Jonathan Marchessault had two goals and Alex Tuch had the game-winner to help Vegas advance to a first round date with the Blackhawks.

“They’re a good hockey team and a I have a lot of respect for them and the whole organization,” said Lehner, who was traded to Vegas from Chicago in the middle of the season. “But I really like it here. I think we’re a great hockey team and we’ll do well against them.”

Vegas swept the round-robin for seeding of the NHL reboot after the pandemic paused the season to grab the No. 1 seed throughout the Western Conference playoffs. Those begin on Tuesday, though dates and times for individual games and series have not been announced.

It’s still unknown whether Lehner will see his old team. He split split the three round-robin games and the one exhibition with Marc-Andre Fleury, and coach Peter DeBoer says he hasn’t decided on a Game 1 starter.

“We’re going to need both guys and both guys are going to play,” DeBoer said. “I can guarantee you if we get to where we want to go, we’re going to use both guys.”

Lehner made a strong case for himself on Saturday.

He batted away 32 of the Avalanche’s 35 shots, including a near-miraculous glove save on a Mikko Rantanen offering on a 5-on-3 power play. It’s hard to argue Lehner wasn’t better in the round-robin or even this season in general, but it’s also hard to argue against Fleury’s playoff pedigree, particularly the way he played in Vegas’ run to the Stanley Cup Final two seasons ago.

Lehner, of course, was diplomatic when asked about the possibility of starting over Fleury.

“I don’t think like that. I think that every game I get to play I’ll do my best and whenever they need me, they need me,” Lehner said. “Marc is a world-class goaltender and one of the bets in the league for a very long time. They traded for me at the deadline and I’m here whenever they need me.”

Having two capable goalies is a luxury for Vegas, which will now have, at least on paper, the easiest path to the Stanley Cup Final. That starts with the 12th-seeded Blackhawks in the first round.

Chicago was seven points out of a playoff spot when the season paused, but showed strong offensive firepower in a four-game series win against the favored Oilers to advance into the first round.

The Golden Knights entered the round-robin as the No. 3 seed in the West, making up six points on the Avalanche and eight points on the Blues in a three-game sweep that also included Dallas. Vegas scored 15 goals in those three games, more per-game than any other team in the round-robins or qualifying series.

Marchessault led the way on Saturday, getting things going with a pretty power-play redirect in the second period to start the scoring. He gave Vegas the lead with a penalty shot in the third period.

“We wanted the first seed after the round-robin and got it done,” Marchessault said. “We’re really happy where our game is at as a team.”

Tuch, after being injured most of the year, scored his third goal of the postseason with 16 seconds remaining in overtime. Tuch, who had just eight goals in 42 regular-season games, fired high over Philipp Grubauer’s shoulder for the game winner.

Nicolas Roy had Vegas’ other goal, and Shea Theodore had a pair of assists. Stone assisted on Tuch’s winner for his team-best fifth point in the round-robin.

The Golden Knights were not the best Western Conference team in the regular season. In mid-January, they were even below .500 in points percentage and out of a playoff spot. Right now though, they are the textbook example of peaking at the right time, beating the three other top-four teams in the West, and earning the top seed.

Now the elimination games start for real. The Golden Knights weren’t the best over 71 regular season games, but they look like they just might be one of, if not the best, now. And the next test is the Blackhawks in a best-of-seven series on the road to the Cup.

Justin Emerson can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Justin on Twitter at twitter.com/@j15emerson.

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