**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2021 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**
By and large, a trip to Canada is a pleasant experience. But there was nothing pleasant about the start to the Golden Knights’ visit to Montreal.
With a lot of issues for both the Knights, who are playing without Chandler Stephenson, their top center, and the Canadiens, who had to play without their head coach after Dominique Ducharme found himself testing positive for COVID-19, it came down to who handled their adversity better in Game 3. Ultimately, it was Montreal that was able to get the better of things Friday, winning 3-2 in overtime and taking a 2-1 series lead in the Stanley Cup semifinals.
We all know what happened so there’s no point in rehashing Marc-Andre Fleury’s gaffe playing the puck that allowed the Canadiens to tie it late in regulation. Or all the missed opportunities to get more than a couple past Carey Price in the Habs’ net.
The question is: How does Vegas respond today in Game 4?
Does the Knights’ power play, which has been woefully anemic, suddenly find new life? Do Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty rediscover their offense, even without Stephenson?
That’s a lot to digest and not much time to do so. Because even if the Knights find all the right answers today, all it does is get them back to square one with the Canadiens. It becomes a best-of-three series with two of the three in the Fortress, where the Habs took Game 2 Wednesday to tie the series.
And if Montreal prevails today? Does this team have the wherewithal to win three straight?
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the adjustments and improvements which need to be made.
First, it appears there will be a change in goal. Robin Lehner was first off the ice at the morning skate and was practicing in the “starter’s net” so that’s obviously huge.
Lehner has played one game in the playoffs and he hasn’t won since May 7 vs. St. Louis. Maybe Fleury is mentally and physically in need of a reboot. Maybe Pete DeBoer thinks a change in net perks everyone else up. I think this is a huge gamble on his part. But the one thing I can see why this makes sense is Montreal isn’t the offensive juggernaut Colorado was, so perhaps Lehner isn’t under attack for 60 minutes and he can make the necessary plays to keep his team in it.
Then there’s the power play. If we’re totally honest, it has been an issue from Opening Night and remains a problem in late June. Currently, the team’s success rate with the man advantage is just 10.5%. During the regular season, it was only 17.8%, 22nd in the NHL. So to say it has been a problem that just recently cropped up would be a misnomer.
So what’s the issue? The entries into the Montreal zone are poor. The setup is inconsistent. Too much standing around. Not enough bodies getting to the front of the net.
There are a lot of problems (on the power play), I don’t think you can pinpoint just one. Our breakouts have been bad. We’re not doing a good job handling pressure. We’re not releasing the puck very well. And we’re not doing a good job crashing the net and picking up rebounds. There are a lot of things we have to get better at, and it’s costing us the series right now. -Reilly Smith
But let’s give Montreal some credit. The Canadiens’ penalty kill is, in a word, disruptive. They pressure. They block shots. They look to attack at every opportunity. In 14 playoff games so far, Montreal has been shorthanded 41 times. The Habs have allowed just three goals while scoring four shorthanded tallies. At 92.7%, their kill is No. 1 in the postseason. Paul Byron has been a big part of that success. He is aggressive and has a great sense of anticipation of where the puck is going and he’s usually there to meet it and make a play.
Still, it’s on the Knights to adjust things. We give DeBoer credit when things go right. This is something he and his staff own as assistant Steve Spott is in charge of the power play.
The power play wasn’t great. It was probably the only piece of our game that wasn’t great. It’s something we have to continue to work out. -DeBoer
How’s that for an understatement? It comes down to playing with urgency and matching Montreal’s determination in trying to kill off the penalties.
It’s about time as a group we take a little more pride in playing on the power play. -Stone
Speaking of Stone, the Captain is going through a bit of an offensive funk in 5-on-5 hockey. He has zero points in the semis and just five shots on goal through the first three games. He needs to get more involved and he knows it.
His linemate Max Pacioretty isn’t faring much better. Pacioretty has just one assist so far against his former team and has eight shots total. The former Canadiens captain was booed by the 3,500 fans inside Bell Centre every time he touched the puck Friday and the Habs have been trying to rough him up at every turn in the hopes of throwing Pacioretty off his game.
They obviously miss Stephenson, who was injured in Game 1 and has not returned to the ice since the game ended. It’s not just his speed, it’s his hockey sense, his ability in the faceoff circle, his penalty-killing prowess along with his physicality that is missing. I don’t know that we see him in Game 5 Tuesday (Ken reported he isn’t with the team in Canada). DeBoer has tried four different centers — Nic Roy, Keegan Kolesar, Alex Tuch, and Tomas Nosek — in an attempt to jump-start Stone and Pacioretty to no avail. And it is becoming a critical issue for the Golden Knights.
The Misfit Line of Smith, William Karlsson, and Jonathan Marchessault has suddenly cooled off. They have yet to score in the semifinals and have four assists total through three games. When your top six are failing to list the lamp, you’ve got a problem.
Suddenly, it’s starting to look more and more like a year ago in the bubble in Edmonton and if memory serves, the Knights never figured out that problem until it was too late. And given the way Price is playing in the Montreal net, getting this straightened out may be a bigger challenge than normal.
If you’re looking for a bright spot, look at Alex Pietrangelo. He continues to be a threat offensively and with four goals and 11 points, he’s finally playing like the player the Knights hoped he would be. He is second to Karlsson (13 points) in the team’s postseason scoring. His defense has been steadily improving with each round and he played over 30 minutes Friday. So PDB obviously trusts No. 7.
So what else happens today? Who centers for Stone and Pacioretty? Is Ryan Reaves, who played just nine shifts and six minutes total in Game 3, in or out of the lineup? Is it time to consider bringing Peyton Krebs into the lineup, assuming he’s available, and play him with Stone and Pacioretty?
One thing we know: DeBoer’s not about to tip his hand. You’ll have to wait until the starting lineup is turned in to find out what he decided to do and hope it ultimately works for his team to get back in a series it started out in dominating fashion but suddenly finds itself playing catch-up. The Knights are still very much alive in this series. But they’re going to have to reverse some disturbing trends if they plan to play for the Cup.
On a separate note, I want to wish all the dads a Happy Father’s Day. You’re appreciated and I hope it’s a wonderful day for all of you.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**