We all watched with our own eyes on Thursday night. Vegas’ 5-2 victory over Anaheim got off to a quick but hectic start. In the opening eight minutes of the 2021 season, the two teams totaled four early goals. We know what happened later in the game, but let’s focus on the first eight minutes of the game.
If you’re playing in a normal season, and we get up two nothing like that the building is rocking. We got to learn to continue to push, we kind of let our foot off the gas after going up two nothing. -Mark Stone
In the initial 2:13 of the 1st period it looked like Vegas had turned the game into a one-sided contest. Jonathan Marchessault and Tomas Nosek nabbed their first goals of the season, temporarily giving the feel of a normal Golden Knights drubbing of the Ducks. Minutes later things quickly changed.
With their backs against the wall, Anaheim battled back and scored two of their own. Like the Golden Knights, the Ducks netted two in a matter of minutes.
The first eight minutes were messy but that wasn’t a shock to the players or coaches involved.
With no preseason you have to evaluate your game. We had some breakdowns a little too much in front of our own net. Some mental breakdowns but we also battled back. We gave up two goals early and we were able to respond the way we wanted to. -Ryan Getzlaf, Ducks captain
After a long time off the ice and a short training camp, it was expected both teams would come out rusty. However, both offenses came out hot and surprised the defense and goaltenders right from the opening faceoff. According to Anaheim’s head coach Dallas Eakins, the early flow of the game was sort of a reality check.
The Golden Knights had just one power play in their first game, but those two minutes were the perfect illustration of the challenge facing the coaching staff in creating their power play units this season.
With two elite power play quarterbacks on the team, the Golden Knights knew they needed to find a way to ice two units both stocked with scoring talent.
The first looks like a normal dominant #1 power play unit. Alex Pietrangelo is the lone defenseman with Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson, and PP wunderkind Cody Glass. It’s the kind of stuff that gives opposing teams’ penalty kill nightmares.
It’s the second unit where things get interesting. Shea Theodore plays alongside Alec Martinez with a trio of forwards including Alex Tuch, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith. It has the potential to be a great unit, but for one issue, there’s no one to take the draws.
Well, I don’t know if we’re comfortable (not having a center on the unit). It’s not the optimum situation obviously. Right now we’re trying to put our two best units together. We love the feel of the two units when they get the puck and get set up so we’re willing to give up a little in the faceoff department to get started. -Pete DeBoer
On that single power play last night, the concern came to the forefront immediately. After a strong 45 seconds by the first unit including a few shot attempts from Pietrangelo, the second group came out for an offensive zone faceoff. Tuch lost the draw and the Ducks quickly cleared the zone. The Golden Knights took a bit of time trying to re-enter the zone, never fully did on three tries, and an offside call forced another draw outside of the zone.
At that moment, with 30 seconds left on the PP clock, the Golden Knights flipped right back to the first unit.
It was an area of emphasis for us in the offseason and adding Pietrangelo definitely gave us the option of having two elite quarterbacks, two units, rather than a 1A and 1B. It’s critical, especially the deeper you go in the playoffs and the better the opponent those little details, the special teams, faceoffs, separate the teams at that point. -DeBoer
The Golden Knights have two bonafide #1 units, but without a reliable option to win faceoffs, it’s likely they will be forced into situations similar to the one they faced last night where they have to default back to the first unit on any draw.
In practice today, the second unit was moving the puck around with ease, even scoring one of the nicest tic-tac-toe goals you’ll ever see. So, clearly, when they have the puck, they have a real chance to be dangerous. But, how long will DeBoer put up with it if they don’t?
We’re hopeful the faceoff situation, guys will dig in, guys will help each other, some guys will become better at it and it won’t become an issue but it’s something that if we can’t get fixed with the personnel we have we might have to look at some different options. -Deboer
Maximizing the power play talents of both Theodore and Pietrangelo will be crucial in the long-term success of the Golden Knights this season.
There’s reason to believe these units could offer just that, but there’s also reason for concern that they won’t.
Through the first three games of the series, the Golden Knights have tallied five goals total with just three coming at even-strength. While Vegas leads on the even-strength shot tally in the series 71-62, the scoring chance numbers per NaturalStatTrick.com actually show Dallas ahead 60-48.
Following Game 1, a game in which Vegas was bullied a bit early, Pete DeBoer used a phrase he had previously been known for in his time in New Jersey to describe the series-opening loss.
I don’t know what the chances were but it was a low-event game both ways. I didn’t think their offense gave us a lot of difficulty. -DeBoer
When DeBoer was behind the Devils bench from 2011-2015 the brand of hockey his teams were known for was often described as “low-event.” That means the shot numbers, chance numbers, and hopefully, the goal numbers are down. It’s a brand of hockey that has worked for many teams over the course of the past decade but one the Golden Knights have always viewed as the nemesis.
When the Golden Knights are at their best, they are creating chances in bunches. They tilt the ice in their favor and they impose their will on the other team. That’s how they overwhelmed Chicago, how they eventually cracked Thatcher Demko and the Canucks, and how they made their way out of the round-robin as the #1 seed. Going back further, that was the brand they played when DeBoer first arrived and it’s how they played for the entire Gallant era as well.
In Game 1, Vegas created just 14 scoring chances in the game at even-strength and only racked up seven through the first 2 periods. In Game 2, they tallied nine in the 1st period alone and finished the game off with 19 despite playing six fewer minutes of even-strength time. Then, in Game 3, they were back to struggling to create chances, totalling 17 but just 10 through two periods.
VGK Game 1
VGK Game 2
VGK Game 3
DAL Game 1
DAL Game 2
DAL Game 3
Meanwhile, Dallas has stayed fairly consistent. They had a breakout period in the 2nd of Game 1, but aside from that, they’ve created about the same number of chances per minute in every other period of the series.
You ever read one of those “choose your own adventure” books? Well, I’m not smart enough to write one of those, but this article is a lot like it. There’s an optimistic route and a pessimistic route and at this moment neither is right nor wrong. So, I’m going to present both and let you choose the narrative you want to believe. Ready? Here we go.
We start with the main concept. Despite winning an absolutely crucial game, the Golden Knights have a lot more to give than they put forth in Game 2.
The Optimist: In a game they had to have, the Golden Knights didn’t even play their best, and still won 3-0. There was a marked improvement from Games 1 to 2 which means they will continue to find their way into the series. Once they get to truly playing their best, Dallas won’t be able to handle it.
The Pessimist: We’re two games in and thus far the Stars have proven they can stymie the Golden Knights. If Vegas doesn’t ramp up its game and they all look like versions of Game 1 or 2, the Golden Knights are in trouble.
The main takeaway from Game 2 will likely be Vegas breaking through and finally putting some offense on the board. When re-watching the game, and truly examining the chances both teams had, it was fairly close to even. The 1st period was a wash with each side having a few good chances. Then in the 2nd, Vegas struck on an excellent transition play. They scored again on a power play goal, then put together one of the niftiest 3-on-1 breaks we’ve seen in franchise history. In the 3rd, Dallas started to create a few more chances but couldn’t stick one in.
The Optimist: The drought needed to end, and it ended with two beautiful team goals followed by one on the power play. The normal VGK style of offense wasn’t even fully on display and Vegas was still able to score three. Now that the dam is broken, when the gritty, playoff-style goals return, the offensive problem will be completely considered a thing of the past. If Vegas is scoring, Dallas is hopeless.
The Pessimist: On the first goal a Dallas Stars defenseman fell down allowing Pacioretty an inordinate amount of time and space to pick out the play. On the second goal, Anton Khudobin seemed to forget how to play goalie and turned a shot that should have hit him in the chest into a goal. And on the final goal the Stars cheated in the offensive zone and gifted Vegas a 3-on-1 rush. The 1st period was more of the same that we had been seeing from the past four games. The power play scored just once and it was handed to them, and the rush chance is not likely replicable as Tyler Seguin shouldn’t be expected to make a boneheaded play more than once a series. Sure, there are three on the board, but only one was truly born out of excellent play by the Golden Knights and even on that one a Stars player ate s**t.
The Golden Knights also scored a goal that was waved off from a goalie interference challenge and they rang the post twice.
In the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Golden Knights were known as the schoolyard bully. Whether it was a big hit by Ryan Reaves, Max Pacioretty slashing Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat late in a game, or Vegas’ bench calling Quinn Hughes a towel boy? The fear tactics worked against those teams, but it won’t make the Dallas Stars flinch.
Vegas may call it playing heavy and physical, but Dallas calls it Stars hockey. They openly invite Vegas to try and bully them around. And by the way, this isn’t a secret to the Golden Knights.
DeBoer's main messages were that this is a different type of team they are playing and the Golden Knights have to figure that out. He says they haven't played a top defensive team and now they are.
Now that Vegas trails the series 1-0 their approach needs to be clearly focused on hockey. With a slumping offense, finishing hits and behind the play antics shouldn’t be a concern. Of course, there will be after the whistle moments but it’s only worth engaging if the Golden Knights are scoring. With Reaves back in the lineup he’ll add some energy and grit but his big physical force won’t impact the outcome against Dallas. Plus, I’m not sure that’s a road Vegas wants to go down. There are no Antoine Roussel’s on the ice out to take frustrations out on. Sure, Corey Perry is a pest but he’s also 6’3″.
The main reason why the Golden Knights should lighten up with the cheapies and chirps is the Stars discipline, or lack thereof. Among the teams remaining in the postseason, Dallas leads in penalty minutes and penalty minutes per game. They’ve spent 183 minutes in the box, and average 10:45 PIMs per game. Sure, Vegas’ PP is struggling but multiple man-advantages a game allows opportunities to break out of their slump and wear down Dallas’ lineup. It’ll pay off eventually if the Stars begin to unravel.
Both Chicago and Vancouver were comprised of smaller, inexperienced players that were admittedly scared of Vegas’ heavy hitters and shocked by their level of chattiness. As the series went on, the Canucks ignored the after school playground crap and went out and won three games. None of that will exist against the Stars. If it does, it could be the other way around.
There’s no doubting Dallas is a tough team, and tonight Vegas will have to play smart to even up the series. By no means was the physical element the reason why the Golden Knights lost Game 1, it was their offense. Fixing that will change the entire series. Staying composed and taking advantage of Dallas’ undisciplined play will help Vegas get points on the board.
But I’d advise Nick Cousins not to yell a Findlay Chevy “Woooo” the next time he drops Dallas captain Jamie Benn to the ice.
Because of @ThomasDrance I know Vegas is one of the louder, cockier teams in the bubble. And you could see that with how Cousins reacted with a loud "woooo" in Benn's face after the hit.
When the puck dropped last night the Dallas Stars had a clear initiative and they wasted no time showing it to the Golden Knights. They want to forecheck the Golden Knights as heavily as possible and challenge every single Vegas exit.
In the first two rounds, the Golden Knights looked like they were holding a clinic on how to break the puck out of the zone. It felt like every time Vegas would head back into their own they’d collect the puck, move it once or twice and exit the zone with ease. Then, the Stars entered the picture and Vegas’ clinic turned into something out of the first few scenes of a Mighty Ducks movie before Gordon Bombay works his magic.
Here is the very first shift of the game.
First, Theodore tries to go up the wall and is denied. Then, Martinez throws an aimless pass up the center of the ice that’s picked off for a scoring chance. Pacioretty then gets it and is crunched by two guys keeping him from exiting the puck out of the zone. There’s a puck battle that Vegas loses. Dallas actually clears their own zone for Vegas’ first exit of the game. The Stars reload, send it back in, and immediately McNabb loses a race but still gets it to Schmidt. He sends a no-look pass to Marchessault, which doesn’t connect. And finally, Smith isn’t first on a loose puck off a block.
Seven Golden Knights players are mentioned in that paragraph. Every single one of them either made a poor play or saw the Stars pressure beat them to the play they wanted to make. If you watch that clip multiple times, you’ll honestly forget the game is being played at even-strength. There are white and green jerseys everywhere and the Golden Knights can’t seem to handle it.
They’re chucking pucks around, reaching with their sticks, getting beat up along the boards, and getting outskated, badly.
Here’s another shift just a few minutes later from the same period.
It’s only one game and it was a month ago, but in the wacky world of the 2019-20 NHL season, the round-robin game against Dallas on August 3rd gives us our best look into what’s to come in the Western Conference Final.
In that game, the Golden Knights scored on the second shift of the game. A goal by Chandler Stephenson got the ball rolling for Vegas who would hold the lead into the early 2nd. That’s when things went haywire for the Golden Knights as they allowed three straight goals inside of a five-minute span including a power play tally that at the time looked like it might bury VGK’s chances. In the 3rd though, Vegas stormed back with two to tie it, then another to take the lead, and then the empty netter to seal the deal.
It was a wild game that saw both teams carry play for extended periods. Here’s what I learned from that game and how I think it could preview some of what we’re about to see starting tonight.
VGK thrived in transition against Dallas
The first Golden Knights goal was actually very similar to one we’ve seen before in a Vegas vs Dallas matchup. In the round-robin, Vegas steamed the puck through the neutral zone to William Karlsson. He carried it into the zone and bought a bit of time as Chandler Stephenson rushed up the ice using his speed to create a Grade A opportunity. In the December game at Dallas, the play to create space for Stephenson was made through the neutral zone by Max Pacioretty. But in both cases, Stephenson’s speed in transition with the help of excellent plays by his linemates created goals seemingly out of nowhere.
The Golden Knights’ next two goals were also born out of transition. A quick up through the neutral zone followed by a nifty play by Nick Cousins set up a goal from Mark Stone. Then a 2017-18 special led to the third Golden Knights goal. The old top line of Karlsson, Smith, and Marchessault took advantage of a broken stick by Dallas to create an odd-man rush. Even though it wasn’t played to perfection, the opportunistic Schmidt jumped in and buried the chance.
Call it a mulligan. Call it an extra life. Call it whatever you’d like, the Golden Knights got it in Game 7.
After having a season defined by a 5-minute major penalty in which they allowed four goals, the Golden Knights faced the same beast a year later when Ryan Reaves was assessed a match penalty for a hit to the head.
The stakes were actually even higher this time around. Rather than having a cushion, the game was tied with three and a half minutes left in the 2nd. If Vegas faltered again trying to kill off five minutes, their season would be over and the stigma would live with them forever.
Instead, Vegas got to try the “level” again, and this time they passed with it flawlessly, albeit with a lot of help from their opponent.
In the five minutes against the Canucks, the Golden Knights allowed just one shot on goal, foiled seven Canuck entry attempts, blocked multiple shots, and played just 1:36 inside of their own zone.
All in all, on the 11 minutes of power plays for the Canucks in Game 7, they got just two shots on goal, had a measly five scoring chances, had seven shots blocked, miss the net on five more, went 10 for 25 on entry attempts and allowed three shots on goal to the shorthanded Golden Knights.
Vancouver’s power play was without answers. Nothing illustrated that more than the image of Quinn Hughes on an empty bench during the 2nd intermission staring at an iPad searching for a solution.
In the series, the Golden Knights killed 23 of the 26 Canuck power plays including each of the final 14. Vegas was on the kill for 44 minutes in the series and allowed just 30 shots on goal. They consistently stood the Canucks up at the blue line and they took away cross-ice passes with ease. Literally the only place in which Vancouver has success was in the faceoff circle.
Prior to Game 6, after the Golden Knights had killed off three straight penalties in Game 5 and six overall, I asked Pete DeBoer if his penalty kill system was completely where he wanted it to be after taking over mid-season and implenting changes. I was a bit surprised when the answer wasn’t a resounding yes.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that nothing should be taken for granted. In a year that has rocked the Earth more than any other in our lifetimes, it feels like there’s not much left we can truly count on.
That is, unless you are a Golden Knights fan.
Through the short three-season history of hockey’s now second newest franchise, the Golden Knights have experienced a lot. The list out of whacky things this team has gone through over the past 1,084 days since they stepped on the ice for their first preseason game is astounding. Through it all, no matter the storyline, be it on-the-ice, off-the-ice or sometimes a little of both, when the puck drops on the biggest games, they may not always win, but the Golden Knights always show up.
This story goes all the way back to the first game in franchise history. A few days prior, the city in which they now called home had experienced one of the worst tragedies in American history. They were being looked at as an escape from reality and they needed to show up for Vegas. They did in Dallas, they did the next night in Arizona, and boy did they ever in the most emotional home-opener in sports history.
As that season went on, time and time again the Golden Knights were presented with massive emotional tests, and every single time, they were up for the test. Fleury’s return from concussion followed by his first game against Pittsburgh. The game against 1st place Tampa Bay. The chance to clinch a playoff berth, then another one to win the division. The first playoff game. The first closeout game. Game 5 against the Sharks. Game 2 vs Winnipeg. Even Games 3, 4, and 5 against Washington. Not a single time can anyone point to a Golden Knights game and say, they were a no-show that night.
The following year it continued with one the most important games of all, Game 7 in San Jose. Like a few others, the outcome of that one got away, but the Golden Knights entered that game plenty of reasons to lay an egg and they didn’t.
There have been games following injuries, following trades, following coach firings, following agents tweeting out controversial pictures, following a global pandemic, following the league being paused in support of a protest against racial injustice, and every single time, without fail, when the Golden Knights hit the ice for the biggest games, they’ve always shown up.
Last night, the emotional deck was stacked in favor of a Golden Knights flop in Game 7. They’d blown a 3-1 lead, their new coach had to make a tough decision which once again cemented the long-time leader of the franchise as a bench-warmer, they switched up the forward lines, they were playing against one of the hottest goalies the NHL Playoffs had ever seen, they were playing a back-to-back, and the list goes on and on.
Then, the game started, and the going got even tougher. But no matter what happened, the Golden Knights never folded. In fact, as they had in so many of the biggest games of their past, they rose to the occasion. They continued to play at their absolute best and basically forced the hockey gods to finally allow a puck off the post to deflect into the net as opposed to out.
Like always, they showed up.
Because of it, the Golden Knights journey continues. It continues into the Western Conference Final where at some point they’ll come across another moment in which they’ll be presented with a chance to crumble.
What it will look like or how they get there is yet to be determined, but at some point, it will happen. When that moment comes, no matter how dire it looks, there is something in 2020 we can take for granted, the best of the Golden Knights will show up when it gets here.
It’s on Pete DeBoer’s mind. It’s on Marc-Andre Fleury’s mind. It’s on Mark Stone and Shea Theodore and Nate Schmidt and William Karlsson’s minds. It’s on George McPhee and Kelly McCrimmon’s minds. It’s on The Creator’s mind. And it’s on every single one of you reading this’s minds.
It can’t happen again, can it?
Whether anyone wants to stare the beast directly in the eyes or not, the memory of how last season ended is inescapable for the Golden Knights as they prepare their second Game 7 in franchise history.
The first one has been woven into the fabric of the team over the past 16 months. Every decision they’ve made has been done with at least a sliver of blowing a 3-1 lead on the minds.
They hired the coach on the other bench. They revamped the penalty kill. They replaced the goalie. They added reinforcements on both offense and defense. They did it all so that these playoffs wouldn’t end the same way the last ones did.
Everyone knows what’s at stake. Even if neither Pete DeBoer nor Mark Stone would say it in the moments following Game 6.
This is a different group, different team. We’ve hit a group over there that’s feeling confident and getting great goaltending and that’s going to happen on the playoff trail and you’ve got to find a way. This is our adversity and we’ve got to stick together and come through it. -DeBoer
It’s one game. We’ve got a great team. Guys are going to go out there and bring our best and whatever happens happens. We’re confident going into tomorrow. We were confident going into Game 5 and 6. We feel like we have the team to win. -Stone
This is a mental test unlike any the young franchise has faced. The answers above are already a testament to how the Golden Knights want to handle it. They are going to try to do everything in their power to focus solely on this one game and ignore the elephant in the room. They want to play great from the moment the puck is dropped, score quickly, win the game, and come out on the other side stronger and more together than ever before.
That’s exactly how they’ll be feeling the moment they get on the ice. But if the adversity from Games 5 and 6 rear its ugly head again in Game 7, the way the Golden Knights handle the flood of emotions linked directly to their history will determine their fate even more so than hockey skill.
Normally, it’s about being the better team, and for the first 10 minutes of the game, it can, and it will if they put the puck in the net. It’s if, and probably when, the going gets tough inside of that game that this team will have to prove to the world, and to themselves, that they can overcome it. They can block out the negative memories of a terrible ending to last season and the frustrating end to the first one. They can bear down and play the way they know they can, the way that got them to 3-1 in the series, and the way that had everyone believing they were the far-and-away better team.
The crossroads is here. Either the Golden Knights win, exorcise the demons that have been haunting them since Joe Pavelski’s blood hit the SAP Center ice, and head into the Western Conference Final with the best chance they’ve ever had to win the Stanley Cup or they lose and they’ll earn a label of playoff chokers, a label that will stick with them for as long as it takes to win 16 playoff games in the same season.