The book on the Golden Knights was written last year. The rough draft was penned by the Vancouver Canucks and the Dallas Stars crossed the T’s and dotted the I’s to finalize the copy. Now, the Minnesota Wild have picked it up and are attempting to turn it into a New York Times’ best seller.
What does the book say? Force the Golden Knights to beat you without scoring on the rush and shooting from the outside. Vegas won’t get traffic in front, they won’t hit passes through the seam to open up a collapsed defense, and they won’t clean up rebounds if any are left behind.
Since Game 4 in the Vancouver series last season, the Golden Knights have now scored a total of 12 goals in their last nine playoff games. Three of the games have gone to overtime meaning Vegas is on a pace of scoring one goal every 45:37 of hockey. Meanwhile, they have crossed the 30 shot threshold in eight of the nine games and amassed at least 40 shots in four of the nine including yesterday’s Game 1.
Simply put, Vegas’ prolific offense that led them to 3.39 goals per game this season and 3.15 last year has dried up completely against the last three teams they’ve played in the postseason, all of which deployed the same defensive structure.
The question now is, can they fix it?
Just keep pushing. I thought we had enough good looks tonight to score a couple goals. It’s not like they smothered us defensively. -Pete DeBoer
We’ve got to bear down on our chances. I think we had quite a few looks. Our power play had some chances to score. We’ve just got to bear down. I think we’re kind of getting jammed up a bit. These guys are good. They’ve got plenty of guys in front of their net trying to block shots. We’ve got to find a way to break them down a bit. -Mark Stone
This all sounds good and well, but it also reads like a carbon copy of what we were hearing back in September when they were unable to right the ship.
Stone’s next answer started to hit at the root of the problem.
Well they’re blocking a lot of shots. They have five guys tight. That’s the way they play. They try to box out the middle of the ice and keep you to the outside. I think we can do a better job kind of penetrating that a little bit more… I think we can get our D ripping some pucks more if they want to block shots. -Stone
Take a look at the Golden Knights’ shot chart from Game 1. There are some chances from directly in front, but a majority of the 42 shots on goal came from the outside.
The Golden Knights can keep telling themselves they are outplaying their opponent, but the Wild, like the Stars and the Canucks before, are perfectly content with the style of play Vegas is throwing at them.
Defensively, anytime I left anything in front of the net, we collapsed and we were boxing out. They didn’t get a lot of second opportunities either. I really liked our game tonight. We just have to carry that forward. -Cam Talbot, Wild goalie
To stop playing into their opponents’ hands, the Golden Knights have to work harder in two areas.
First, they must find a way to attack the net before the defense is ever truly set up. Maybe the Golden Knights’ best chance in Game 1 came off a play in the neutral zone by Shea Theodore. He picked off a pass and hit William Karlsson who caught the Wild out of position as they tried to change.
Other than that chance though, the transition game was reliant on defensemen getting up in the rush. Pietrangelo, Theodore, Hague, and Whitecloud each had moments where they were part of the rush and helped generate chances before the Wild could collapse. Any time Vegas can get those chances, they must take them and then sell out to get the second chance on the back end of it, even if it means the potential of giving up something dangerous the other way.
Second, it’s all about stretching out the defense by using movement both on and off the puck in the offensive zone. Right now, the Vegas offense is quite simple. They rely on the cycle game to gain complete possession of the puck, and then they play low to high in order to allow the defensemen at the point to make the offensive decisions. In Game 1, most of those decisions were to either fire the puck on goal, where Vegas rarely created enough traffic, or recycle the puck to allow the forwards to get back to work.
Vegas needs more activation from the blue line. Pietrangelo and Theodore are both excellent puck handlers who can activate up the wall and create confusion. If they can beat the winger guarding high, defensemen must come over and help out, which will spread out the defense as a whole and allow for more rebound chances.
Or, Vegas need forwards to come out towards the blue line to stretch out the defense. Normally, the Golden Knights position one forward along each half-wall and then the other one heads to the front of the net. It’s worked all year against defenses less focused on collapsing into their goalie. Instead, they may need to either overload one side or bring a forward up high to change the look Minnesota is giving them defensively.
I think we’ll look at the tape. Try to find some more offense. Obviously, five-on-five and on the power play. The game tonight, it’s a one-goal game. We’ve got to find another goal tonight somewhere, somehow, at some point prior to it getting to overtime. We’ll look for some answers there. -DeBoer
Whether they are the answers I just spelled out or not, hopefully, they find them and quickly. It’s clear the Golden Knights plan on continuing to play the heavy puck possession game while the Wild are happy to sit in and deny Vegas in transition. If the series continues down that path, Vegas must have more tools in the bag than they’ve had in their previous nine playoff games.
Otherwise, we’re going to start hearing about puck luck and hot goalies, and nobody wants that.