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.
On the exit, all five Montreal skaters were on the same side of the ice. Thus, Whitecloud must be supporting that side of the ice defensively. He was close, but just a bit too far towards the center of the ice, which opened the breakaway for Josh Anderson. Then came mistake number three. Holden’s backcheck was listless. He was heading back with Jesperi Kotkaniemi but when the play was kept alive by the initial stop from Marc-Andre Fleury, Holden wasn’t able to recover to challenge the play.
Now, the Habs were on the board and they could start playing deploying their much more defensive mindset. It wasn’t because they flipped the switch and started dominating Vegas, instead it was born out of a trio of mistakes by the Golden Knights.
The second goal was almost identical. Alec Martinez pinched in too far, Jon Merrill made a good play around him, and then the backchecking wasn’t hard enough to break up the rest of the play.
But it’s the final one that sunk Vegas for good, a mistake that came from what should be the most unlikely of sources. While killing a penalty, Mark Stone made a good read to pick off a pass and kill a possession. He exited the zone with control of the puck and was skating into a 2-on-2 situation. Mind you, Stone had been on the ice killing the penalty for nearly 40 seconds at this point. Instead of dumping the puck in, he tried to navigate through two players at the offensive blue line. The puck was poked away and it lead to a rush the other way. Again, the backchecking was too slow and too soft (in this case, likely because of the lone PK shift) and it allowed an open shot from the slot by Eric Staal.
These are simply plays that cannot be made in the postseason, especially by the captain and best player on the roster.
The Golden Knights have not been at their best each of the last two games, but as much credit as the Canadiens deserve, a ton of the blame must fall on the shoulders of Vegas themselves. Montreal is a different team when they have the lead. They become the exact type of matchup nightmare the Golden Knights have struggled to solve in four of their last five playoff series. But allowing them to get there has been as much a product of VGK mistakes as it has Montreal successes.
Certainly, there are some tactical tweaks necessary heading into Game 6 at the Bell Centre the Golden Knights must make. The biggest among them though has to be a reinvigorated commitment to protecting the puck in all three zones. Vegas did a masterful job of it against the Avalanche and it led to four straight wins. If they get back to it immediately, there’s still a very good chance they can win this series as well. If they don’t, the curtain will close abruptly on 2021.