Well, they made it through. It wasn’t easy, it took a little longer than expected, and there was a lot more heartache in the series than necessary, but the Golden Knights are on to the Second Round. And with it comes the inevitable date with the Colorado Avalanche, a team Vegas knows very well.
The best team in the league with arguably the best player in the league. -Max Pacioretty
The hill the Golden Knights must climb to once again reach the NHL’s version of the semifinals is a tall one. Colorado won the President’s Trophy (thanks to a tiebreak over Vegas), they swept the St. Louis Blues in the First Round, and quite simply, they are as elite a team as there is in the NHL.
But, that doesn’t mean beating them in a seven-game series is impossible for the Golden Knights. In fact, it’s very possible, if they follow this blueprint.
Like the one from the First Round against the Wild, it’s broken down into four segments with the most important being first, and the least last.
Combat speed with puck management
The most important aspect of this series for the Golden Knights will be their management of the puck. It’s obviously most crucial to make smart decisions in the defensive zone, but against the Avalanche, Vegas need to be excellent taking care of the puck in all three zones. It starts and ends with how and when the puck is turned over. It’s inevitable the Golden Knights will lose control of the puck. When they do, they must do it in the least dangerous places in the ice and be set up with good structure behind it so they can neutralize the Avs ability to get out in transition.
In many ways, the Golden Knights want to make these games boring. Rather than trying to look for the fancy play to match the Avs speed and skill, Vegas should be trying to play simple and wait for the mistakes Colorado makes. If the Golden Knights play extended periods where they are mistake-free, their defensive structure and goaltending will cause the Avalanche fits. It will limit the ability for MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Makar to make dazzling plays, it will set up for chances on the rush the other way as the Avs try harder and harder to generate offense.
Handle the moments of frustration
Both of these teams are excellent defensively. They do it in different ways, but both teams have the ability to consistently break pucks out of the defensive zone despite heavy forecheck pressure. For Vegas, they utilize their exceptional defensive wingers to make the right plays along the walls to get them out of the zone quickly and safely. Colorado relies more on skating, simply winning races to pucks, and using the time and space that creates to pick out the right pass before the forecheck ever gets going.
When both teams are on their games, which will likely be for extended periods in this series, generating offense will be difficult for both teams. Because of this, frustration will start to set in as there will be shift after shift after shift where no one is creating much of anything dangerous. The team that handles this frustration better will be able to break through it quicker and stronger. If Vegas embraces this style of play, they’ll feel like they are winning the battles even when the game is being played as a stalemate. The Golden Knights need to be comfortable going five to ten minutes without getting anything dangerous if it means forcing the Avs to do the same. Frustration will catch up to different players at different times, it must happen to Colorado more than Vegas.
Survive the tough matchups
With Max Pacioretty in the lineup and Nazem Kadri out for the Avalanche, this problem wanes a bit, but it still remains a challenge for the Golden Knights. Like most teams in the NHL, Vegas barely have any answer for the Colorado top-line, let alone answers up and down the lineup. There will be times when the Avs get MacKinnon and Makar on the ice against the VGK bottom-six and/or third-pair. When it happens, it’s about survival.
Vegas cannot allow these 40-second shifts to change the style of the game and allow the Avalanche to start dictating play through the neutral zone. It doesn’t have to look pretty, and there can be some bend in the Golden Knights’ game when these matchups happen, but they cannot break. They can’t make panicky plays like icing the puck or trying to make blind exits. Surviving these moments will be a huge piece to keeping the Avlanache from stealing goals when Vegas is otherwise playing well.
Make Philip Grubauer prove his worth
Grubauer has had an excellent season, easily his best in Colorado and the best of his career, but in a weak division in front of an elite defensive unit, there are still question marks that the Golden Knights must force him to answer. The Golden Knights are going to want to challenge Grubauer every time they can, much like they did Cam Talbot. Odd angle shots, well-defended rush chances, shots through traffic, whatever it takes, Vegas need to force Grubauer to make all of the stops, even the easy ones. The Golden Knights know what they are getting from their goalie, no matter which one is in there, the Avs think they do too, but history indicates it could be a little more up in the air in the Colorado net, Vegas need to be there to take advantage of it.
If the Golden Knights do all of this, they’ll walk away with another series win and send the Avalanche packing in the Second Round for the third straight year. If not, the more skilled team will consistently give the Golden Knights fits.