It’s no secret to anyone who watches hockey, teams and players play differently depending on the score of the game. It’s true about every team sport, but the fewer goals/points necessary to win a game, the stronger the delta between how a team plays when they are ahead and when they are behind.
A lot of it comes down to human nature and no matter how hard a coach tries to guard against it, there’s no stopping its effect. Some coaches lean into it, while others attempt the opposite.
For the past two eras of Golden Knights hockey, we have heard from coaches about the importance of continuing to “play our game.” From the drop of the puck to when the horn sounds in the 3rd period, both Gerard Galland and Pete DeBoer wanted Vegas playing the same way.
They’d often get frustrated when it wouldn’t happen using a phrase like “we took our foot off the pedal” when the opposing team would push back. Both coaches wanted aggressive hockey all game long no matter how many goals the Golden Knights were up or down.
The same cannot be said about Bruce Cassidy’s Golden Knights and it can be illustrated by their shot attempt numbers in each different game state.
This season the Golden Knights have attempted 1,992 shots at 5-on-5. They’ve allowed 2,023 for a difference of -31. There are 17 teams with a positive SAT (shots attempted) count and 15 with a negative one. Of the 15 in the red, only three are currently in playoff position.
Typically, that would be a gigantic red flag for the Golden Knights, especially considering they have the worst number of the three. However, when you drill into how they got there, it’s not nearly as much of a concern.
When the Golden Knights are tied they have a +43 SAT count. When they are behind it’s even better at +70. But when they are ahead, they drop to a whopping -144. When trailing, VGK have the third-worst shot attempt differential in the league, ahead of just St. Louis and Arizona.
Vegas generates just 45.3% of the game’s 5-on-5 shot attempts when they have the lead in the game. However, when a game is tied the number bumps up to 51.4% and when they trail it goes even higher to 53.9%. The difference between trailing and leading is a massive 8.6%, also the third highest in the league.
Here’s why this is not necessarily a bad thing for Vegas.
Under Cassidy, the Golden Knights alter their play style depending on the score of the game. When they are ahead, especially in the 3rd period, they tend to make a few adjustments. First, the forecheck is often backed down in order to make sure they can maintain their proper 1-2-2 setup through the neutral zone. At times, they even drop further in the neutral zone to what essentially becomes a 1-4 setup in which four VGK players are stacked up across the blue line. Finally, in the defensive zone, their approach becomes even more focused on denying the center of the ice. This often means more zone time for the opposition and in turn more shots, and usually more harmless shots.
When the Golden Knights have a lead, they aren’t looking to play the exact same style of game they play early in games or when they’re behind. Instead, they try to protect the lead and then pounce on mistakes.
VGK have entered the 3rd period with a lead 18 times, they’ve walked away with the win in 17 of them.
This is a fairly significant change from what we’ve seen in the past. Before Cassidy, no matter the score of the game, one of the easiest ways to tell how well the Golden Knights were playing was to simply look up at the shot totals. When they were on, the puck would spend loads of time in the offensive zone, epitomizing the slogan “the best defense is a good offense.”
No longer is that the case, and because of it, there will be some skewed numbers.