They always say defense wins championships. And while the Golden Knights won nothing more than Game 1 last night, defense was the main reason they were able to take the 13th step toward ultimate glory.
There were three areas in particular where Vegas’ back end rose to the occasion in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final.
To reach this point the Golden Knights had played 17 games against three very different opponents. VGK D-men had scored just three goals in those games. In Game 1, both go-ahead goals came from a similar spot on the ice by Golden Knights’ defensemen.
First, Shea Theodore masterfully walked the blue line leaving Anthony Duclair in his wake before firing a perfect wrist shot through traffic to the top right corner. Theodore first received the puck near the wall in front of Vegas’ bench. He skated it to the center looking for a shooting lane but was blanketed by Duclair. So, he kept carrying it all the way across the rink to the opposite set of boards. That’s where he did a pirouette before a double inside-out dangle to lose his marker. The rest was history.
Against a Florida defense that likes to take away the front of the goal, the high slot is an area that is expected to be open at times for the Golden Knights. In previous years a lot of Vegas’ in-zone offense operated by seeking out this exact look, but this season, and especially this postseason, it’s been rare. On the Theodore play, you can tell the emphasis that has been placed on getting to the high slot. The play started with a shot from Theodore in that space, then as the puck was worked back up to him he instantly brought it there again, and finally when it was taken away, he used his skating and skill to work it there a third time inside of 10 seconds.
That exact area of the ice would manifest itself in another goal from a Vegas blueliner later, which eventually stood as the game-winner. Following a rush chance by Jack Eichel and Ivan Barbashev that was stopped, under pressure by multiple backcheckers, Barbashev sent a pass to Zach Whitecloud who was just entering the zone. Typically, Whitecloud favors a play where he activates down the dot-line on his forehand, but this time he held onto the puck and brought it directly into the high slot. With a Panther providing a screen on his own goalie, Whitecloud sent one back across his body where he beat Sergei Bobrovsky clean.
Vegas defensemen clearly entered this game with the green light to shoot the puck, especially from the high slot. VGK blueliners were responsible for 12 of the 34 shots on goal and 24 of Vegas’ 63 shot attempts. This is a major step away from how the Golden Knights operated offensively all season, and it may have caught the Panthers off guard in Game 1.
The Golden Knights were forced to kill three penalties in Game 1, all in extremely high-pressure situations. The first came moments after Florida opened the scoring and could have taken a commanding 1st period lead, and the other two were both moments after Vegas had scored to take 2-1 and 3-2 leads.
The success started with entry defense. On all three power plays the Panthers struggled to gain clean entry to the zone and by the time they reached the final minute of the last one they resorted to dump-ins on every entry. Vegas pressured high up the ice with their first penalty killer and then held a high gap above the blue line to force Florida to make decisions earlier than they were expecting. Of the six minutes of power play time for Florida, nearly half of it was killed just trying to get the puck into the zone.
Once it did get in, Vegas did what they’ve been able to do successfully at even strength all season; keep the puck away from the middle of the ice. Florida managed 12 shot attempts, but just three made it all the way to Adin Hill, and not a single one was within 15 feet of the Vegas goal. The Panthers did not generate a single high-danger chance on the man-advantage, and they mustered up just 0.43 expected goals in six minutes of power play time.
Vegas’ defense was excellent in front of Adin Hill for most of the night, especially against the Florida’s best players Matthew Tkachuk and Aleksander Barkov, but that doesn’t mean they were perfect. When the game did break down in front of Hill, he made save after save to eliminate all of the most dangerous Panthers’ chances.
Obviously, the legendary highlight save against Nick Cousins will get most of the plaudits, but Hill made hige stops on Barkov, Bennett, Tkachuk, Verhaeghe, and Montour on Grade A chances. Florida generated 10 high-danger chances over the course of the game, and Hill stopped each and every one of them.
Sure, he probably would like to have done better on the shorthanded wraparound that opened the scoring, but aside from that, Hill was flawless. He constantly started Vegas’ breakout by stopping the puck behind the goal, his rebound control was on point, and he calmly slowed the game down in the right situations using his glove.
The Golden Knights scored five goals in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final, but the reason they won Game 1 was the work of the six defensemen and the man in the pads behind them. This postseason run they’ve proven to Vegas fans to be the best blue line in the NHL. Game 1 began the process of proving it to the rest of the world.