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Golden Knights Lack Defined Roles Come Postseason

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

One of the most used cliches in hockey revolves around each team playing “their game” as opposed to adapting to their opponents. You’ll hear it from coaches, players, management, heck, even media and fans will jump on board insisting if their team plays the way they always play the opposition won’t matter.

Since Pete DeBoer took over as head coach of the Golden Knights the term “our game” has become a staple in his rhetoric before and after games. But does anyone really know what that “game” is?

Are they an offensive team? Defensive? Fast? Heavy? High-event? Low-Event? Puck possession? Rush reliant?

For the most part, the Golden Knights’ “game” is winning. DeBoer’s Golden Knights have amassed a 55-19-4 record, getting there in a variety of ways. Along the way, they certainly have developed into one of the NHL’s best defensive teams, as evidenced by the 2021 Jennings Trophy.

However, in both seasons with DeBoer behind the bench, the Golden Knights went out in a similar way. Against both Dallas and Montreal, Vegas fell into a scoring drought against a team committed to defending the center of the ice.

Which got me to ask, does the Golden Knights “game” not match up with this style of opponent, or do the Golden Knights not really have a defined “game?”

There are a million ways to define a hockey team stylistically, especially one like the Golden Knights. But there is one way to truly hone in on each players’ role inside of a team, and that’s by looking at usage. Every time play is stopped, the head coach and his assistants have a choice to make, which line and which pair are they going to put on the ice next. When you need a goal and the draw is in the offensive zone, who goes? When you are protecting a lead and the faceoff is in front of your own goal, who do you lean on?

These decisions help define a player’s role on a hockey team. Most players in the NHL have a specific skill set that lends either to being more adept offensively or defensively. Then there are the Golden Knights who seem to twist and turn with these decisions depending on who they are playing on any given night.

I went back over the past six playoff series and the regular season to try and figure out the offensive and defensive roles on this team. I broke each series down individually and used the 2021 regular season as a whole to give us seven data points on every Golden Knight.

Does each player start more or less than the team average in offensive zone draws? This will help show us which players are more relied upon for their offensive contributions and which are for defense.

For example, the Golden Knights took 215 faceoffs against the Minnesota Wild. 122 of those, or 56.7%, were taken in the offensive zone. Thus, any player with an offensive zone faceoff percentage higher than 56.7% is considered “UP” and anyone below is considered “DOWN.” Here’s the chart of each player for the past six series and the regular season.

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Who’s To Blame For The Golden Knights Underachieving… Again

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s a sad moment for fans when a hockey season abruptly ends like it did last Thursday. Reality sets in when a Cup run is over and the 31st franchise will have to wait another year for a chance at the ultimate prize. Unfortunately, the truth is, this was another wasted season for the Golden Knights. For the second straight year, Vegas faced an inferior opponent and couldn’t find a way to force a game seven. Their leaders, coaches, and framers failed again and almost identically in back-to-back years.

Against Montreal, the Golden Knights outshot the Canadiens 193 to 165 yet had two fewer goals in the Semifinals. Keep in mind the Canadiens were the 15th lowest scoring team in the regular season and Vegas was 3rd highest. The Golden Knights fell down the same hole last postseason against the Dallas Stars. Like Montreal, Dallas was another low scoring team that found a way to outscore the Golden Knights in the conference finals. It was inexcusable in 2020, and even more so in 2021 after the organization retooled in the offseason.

So, who’s to blame?

Players

Let’s begin with the leadership group. Captain Mark Stone has built quite the portfolio in Vegas, however, his stock continues to plummet in the playoffs. For three straight seasons, Stone has provided very little offense for the Golden Knights when they needed him late in a series. Going without a single point in the entire Semifinals was rock bottom for Stone. His failure to produce in the backend of a playoff series was evident again against Minnesota, Colorado, and Montreal.

In all fairness to the captain, he owned up to it.

I can praise (the Canadiens) all I want but ultimately it falls down on myself and the top players on this team. We had some guys that produced night in and night out. As far as myself I got skunked this series. That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team, the leader of this team, I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred. -Mark Stone

Another concern was the continuous slow starts for Vegas. In six Semifinal games, the Golden Knights allowed the first goal four times, and were sluggish to begin the 1st period in several other postseason contests. In the final 12 games of the postseason, the Golden Knights trailed at some point in 11 of them.

Is it possible the team leaders for Vegas couldn’t motivate their teammates enough to kick off the game on time? It’s hard to comprehend why, but it’s fair to point fingers at the men with letters; Stone, Reilly Smith and Alex Pietrangelo.

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Despite Empty Season End Feeling, These Golden Knights Are Climbing

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

When history looks back on the 2021 Golden Knights, it will show that they came up short. Again.

Technically, you can split hairs and say they were one win closer this season than last, but in the end, the round was the same, and the way they went out was almost identical to the year prior.

For four years running the most successful expansion franchise in North American history has been able to call itself a contender. Since the world realized how good this team can be sometime in December of 2017, it’s been fair and accurate to consider them among the most likely options to win the Stanley Cup each and every year.

But each year, it hasn’t happened and every time we’re left with the same feeling of emptiness. A feeling of “what could have been.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four postseason failures though, is that while the bleak feeling will always exist, it feels different each time.

This one doesn’t feel like the first season. It certainly doesn’t feel like the second year that ended with an apology from the NHL. And while it should feel a lot like the third one, it doesn’t.

It’s because this team showed improvement from the last.

I thought we took a step from a year ago when we got to this point. I thought we were better during the regular season, better the playoffs against two really tough teams in Minnesota and Colorado. But we still fell off at the wrong time. There’s another door we’ve got to find a way to barge through at this time of year. -Pete DeBoer

Of course, the regular season wasn’t what it usually is, and the West Division was even more of a joke than the Pacific has been since the Golden Knights arrived, but there’s always something to take away from 56 games. What Vegas took from them was consistency. Any lapses in the Golden Knights’ play rarely lasted longer than a period, let alone a game, or a week.

Then, when the playoffs came around, they were faced with a similar obstacle to the one that tripped them up in the bubble. Dallas and Minnesota play a similar brand of defense and for a portion of the beginning of that series, it was working against the Golden Knights.

That was the first step.

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Golden Knights Beating Themselves As Much As They’re Being Beaten By Montreal

Much of the focus five games in this series with Montreal will be on the Golden Knights’ inability to score goals. Rightfully so, as they have mustered just 11 goals in the series and a measly seven since the return of Jeff Petry in Game 2. But it’s the way they are conceding that has me more concerned for the next game (or hopefully two).

Last night, the Golden Knights came out and played a pretty solid first 10 minutes. In a postseason where 1st periods have been a problem, it looked like we were headed for something much different to start Game 5.

Another failed power play, the 12th of the series at the time, could have sapped some of the Vegas energy. However, that wasn’t the case. Following the man advantage, the Golden Knights attempted the next two shots on goal and controlled play for the next few minutes. The game was going perfectly for the Golden Knights until they started making their own mistakes.

After a dump-in by Zach Whitecloud, there was a battle for the puck in the corner. The Habs outnumbered the Golden Knights for the puck, but Nick Holden read that the exit will come up the wall. He stepped forward to challenge a pass that never happened, and then when the puck did eventually make it to his player, he was caught in no-man’s land.

It’s a read Holden has made correctly time and time again in this series and aggressive pinches like this are a big reason the VGK forecheck has had success in the times it has. In this case, it was not the right read, but that one mistake didn’t lead to the goal by itself, there were still two more to come.

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Shift Back To Vegas Should Free Mark Stone Of Phillip Danault

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Four games into this Stanley Cup Semifinals series with the Montreal Canadiens, the Golden Knight’s captain, and best player, has been held without a point. He’s been on the ice for just two of the Golden Knights’ 10 goals in the series and has registered a measly five shots in four games. He’s posted a -1 rating and below 50% share numbers in Corsi, shot share, scoring chances, and expected goals.

To summarize, the Habs have bottled up Mark Stone as well as anyone has been able to since he’s become a Golden Knight and it’s a huge reason why the underdog is tied in the series with three games to go.

But, there is good news, and that’s where the next game is being played.

One of the biggest reasons for Stone’s ineffectiveness offensively in this series has been the matchup he’s been facing. In Game 4, Stone played a total of 16:15 of ice time at even-strength, an astounding 12:21, or 76%, was played while sharing the ice with Phillip Danualt. In those 12 minutes and change, the Golden Knights did not generate a single high-danger scoring chance while allowing four, they allowed 78% of the expected goal share, and they did it while taking 10 of the 14 draws in the offensive or neutral zones.

Danault has been doing this to superstars the entire postseason and he’s doing it again to Stone… when the Habs can get the matchup.

As the series heads back to T-Mobile Arena tomorrow, the Golden Knights now control last change. At every stoppage, they’ll have the final decision as to whether or not they want to put Stone on the ice at the same time as Danualt, and if series history is any indicator, they’ll shy away from that option at every pass.

Mark Stone TOIvs. Phillip Danault
Game 15:49
Game 26:19
Game 311:01
Game 411:31
Games in Vegas12:08
Games in Montreal22:32

At home, Stone is seeing more than five minutes per game extra away from Danault than he has at the Bell Centre. Most of these minutes have been against Montreal’s 3rd and 4th lines, where Stone has seen much more success territorially.

Stone has started a shift in the offensive zone 24 times in the four games. Danault has been out there for 14 of the 24, but just three at T-Mobile Arena.

For the Golden Knights’ offense to really get going in this series, they need their captain to generate scoring chances in bunches. Stone has taken just five shots himself and he’s been on the ice for 28, fewer than six other Golden Knight forwards including last night’s overtime hero Nic Roy.

Pete DeBoer and his staff came into the series knowing the challenge Danault would present to Stone, and they adjusted accordingly in the first two home games. But now, having seen four games of it, they may look to avoid the matchup even more in Game 5. It’s up to Stone to take advantage of it.

**Stats for this article were sourced from NaturalStatTrick.com*

Carp: Adversity Greets Golden Knights In Canada

**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.

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One Shift Illustrated How The Golden Knights Won Game 1 And How The Can Keep Winning

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It happened early in the 2nd period, a shift from the Misfit Line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, and Jonathan Marchessault matched up with Alex Pietrangelo and Alec Martinez. Playing against the strongest defensive pair and the best shutdown line Montreal can offer, the Golden Knights put together 46 seconds of dominance that encapsulated how Vegas stormed out to a 1-0 series lead and stands as a shining example of exactly what must continue to happen for the Golden Knights to punch their second ticket to the Stanley Cup Final in four years.

After the Golden Knights struggled their way through the 1st, despite getting out to a two-goal lead, they finally started doing what they set out to do in beating the Montreal Canadiens.

In this one shift, the Golden Knights demonstrated a ferocious forecheck, multiple perfect pinches by defensemen, excellent puck support by all five skaters, strength along the boards, and an offensive mindset that put Montreal under so much pressure they were forced to take a penalty.

Here it is. Watch it and focus on how often there are moments where the puck is out of VGK’s possession and how they go about getting it back in several different ways.

It starts with a dump in from the red line by Martinez. While Karlsson wins the race to the puck, he’s hounded by two Canadiens. Karlsson recognizes he’s outnumbered and quickly jabs the puck forward to the open space and a waiting unmarked (for now) Reilly Smith.

When Smith gets it, he sees the defensemen rushing towards him and moves it around the wall. It’s hard to tell if the pass is directed towards Marchessault under the goal or all the way around to Martinez, but there’s no doubt Smith knows where the defense is lightest and moves the puck that way.

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Vegas’ Unheralded Unit Comes Through Again

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

It’s fair to say the Golden Knights’ defensive unit have outperformed their opponents all postseason. Vegas’ defense have allowed the second least goals per game, and consistently cause star snipers to shake their heads and shrug their shoulders on the bench. However, last night was evidence of how the Golden Knights’ blue line can change the outcome differently when they’re pitching in offensively.

They got some solid d-men over there. They were finding lanes, getting pucks through and jumping in to the rush. That’s what good D does. I’ll have to find a way to mitigate that. -Carey Price, MTL goaltender

In Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Semifinals, three Golden Knights defensemen scored and five registered a point. Vegas’ blue line produced more points than Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Alex Tuch, and Mattias Janmark combined. Yet it didn’t matter for Vegas.

Not only were the Golden Knights’ defensive core one of the highest-scoring in the regular season but they’ve nearly matched it in the playoffs. In the regular season, Vegas’ blueline combined for 142 points, adding 0.39 of offense per game. In the postseason it’s been equally as impressive.

VGK’s Offense From Defensemen

Regular Season: 142 Points (36 Goals, 139 Assists), 0.39 Points Per Game
Postseason: 37 Points (9 Goals, 28 Assists), 0.38 Points Per Game

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Blueprint To The Golden Knights Beating The Montreal Canadiens

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Eight wins down, eight to go. The next four need to come against a feisty team from north of the border that are on an impressive seven-game winning streak while not trailing at any point in any game.

But the Golden Knights enter the series as the better team both on paper as well as in results thus far this season.

I laid out the blueprint to beat the Wild and the Golden Knights followed it. Then I did the same for the Avalanche, and VGK did even more than was expected. Now, it’s time for the blueprint to beat the Canadiens, once again broken down into four segments with the most important up first.

Beat Montreal’s skaters to score on Carey Price

As I wrote about Saturday, scoring on Carey Price is never easy. However, scoring on the Canadiens is far from impossible. As good as Price can be, and he’s more than capable of making Thatcher Demko and Anton Khudobin’s performances look average, the Golden Knights can make him a non-factor if they generate the right type of looks.

What I mean by that is Vegas need to work incredibly hard every single time they get the puck in the offensive zone to obstruct Price’s vision of the puck. Then, they’ll be able to shoot pucks through traffic as well as tip pucks and create chances even the best goalie in the world cannot stop.

In addition, Vegas have to be clinical with their offensive opportunities. They can’t be relying on bank shots off the goalie’s back or goals where the goaltender is literally looking in the stands for the puck. Instead, they’ll have to execute at a high level when they create their most dangerous chances. Breakaways need to be finished. Odd-man rushes need to result in shots on net, and one-timers must be blasted on net rather than fired wide or scuffed off the stick.

The Golden Knights are good enough to create chances Price, or any goalie, can’t stop. They need to keep doing it.

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Carp: Underdogs No More

**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.**

What on earth is Peter DeBoer going to do?

He will not be able to play the “Us Against The World Underdog Card” as his Golden Knights are a prohibitive 5-to-1 favorite to win their Stanley Cup semifinal series against Montreal, which begins Monday night at the Fortress. I’m guessing he makes a 180-degree turn and tells anyone who’ll listen just how dangerous the Canadiens are, how the Golden Knights are going to have to raise their game another notch or two, how they’re only halfway to their ultimate objective and yada, yada, yada.

Please. Spare me.

DeBoer happens to be coaching a really, really good hockey team, one that’s been built for this very moment. The $8.8 million defenseman is earning his pay (finally!). The future Hall of Fame goaltender is on top of his game. All four lines are scoring. The defensemen are blocking shots, contributing offensively, and doing their jobs.

So let Dominique Ducharme do the talking and embrace the underdog role. He has earned it. PDB just needs to coach his team and get to the Cup Final and be ready to match wits with one of two excellent coaches — either the Lightning’s Jon Cooper or the Islanders’ Barry Trotz, the latter who knows how to beat the Knights when the big money is on the line.

There. I’ve vented.

Now, on to the semis and how the Knights will get this done.

If you thought the Colorado series would come down to goaltending (it ultimately did), the Habs-Knights matchup is all about the goalies. Carey Price has rediscovered his game and he is capable of singlehandedly winning this series. But Marc-Andre Fleury has been every bit as good, perhaps better. He will be highly motivated to beat the team he grew up rooting for as a kid.

Fleury hinted his legs were feeling it after the Knights eliminated the Avalanche Thursday. Game 1 isn’t until Monday. He’ll have enough time to rest, recover and prepare. I just don’t see Robin Lehner in the Vegas net unless Fleury is hurt.

Speaking of injuries, are you paying attention to the roster? The Knights are nearly at full strength. Peyton Krebs, who suffered a broken jaw late in the regular season, began skating last week and he might be available during this series if needed. Tomas Nosek’s availability is a bit more sketchy but GM Kelly McCrimmon said Friday Nosek is making good progress and may be ready to come back soon.

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