Typically, when we think of tall, heavy teams in the NHL, we equate them with big hits, strength along the walls, and boxing out in front of the goal.
For the Golden Knights, one of the physically largest teams set to compete in the playoff this year, it tends to materialize in a different way.
Vegas ranks just 12th in the league in hits and they have only one player in the top 40 in the category. They certainly are strong along the walls but rarely will we see a game dominated by VGK pushing the opposition off the puck. And while Bruce Cassidy’s zone defense has helped with winning pucks in front of the goalie, of playoff-likely teams only the Edmonton Oilers have allowed more rebound goals at 5-on-5 this year.
Where size has helped the Golden Knights most is when they are in possession of the puck. Vegas has been one of the best teams scoring goals off the rush in the NHL, but when they spend time in the offensive zone they are not the most creative. So, instead, they rely on wearing down opponents and exposing lapses in coverage to score. The best way they’ve done this is with extended puck possession, especially by one player holding the puck for 5-10 seconds at a time.
When VGK are at their best, they begin to control games by holding the puck near the faceoff circles in the offensive zone. Jack Eichel, Nic Roy, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, Jonathan Marchessault, and many other Golden Knights forwards are excellent at fending off defensemen to maintain possession of the puck. The longer they are able to hold it, the more options open up as the defense scrambles to stay in position. From low-to-high passes that bring VGK’s offensive-minded defensemen into the play to cycling the puck behind the net to let the next forward hold it, eventually, better more dangerous passing lanes become available.
This has all been especially evident in the last two games against the Minnesota Wild, and Cassidy has a theory as to why.
Maybe some of it is matchups. Their right D are active offensively but they aren’t the biggest guys. So if you are against them you might have a competitive advantage when you are longer and I think we acknowledged those situations well. -Cassidy
Minnesota’s right-side defensemen are Matt Dumba, Jared Spurgeon, and John Klingberg. All three players are offensive-minded, they each weigh less than 200 pounds, and Spurgeon stands just 5’9″ tall. It’s a stark contrast to what they roll out on the left.
During both games, but even more so the one in Vegas, the Golden Knights took advantage of this size mismatch to start their offense on that side of the ice. Often there would be zone entries against a covering forward when the puck was turned over, and then they’d hold the puck on the right (VGK’s left) side of the ice until the rest of the play opened up. In each game, it led to opportunities for Vegas’ defensemen to get shots from the point and forwards to camp out in front of the goal looking for chances in close.
It was a point of emphasis. It’s something we talked about that we feel we can create offense against them in that manner because they are pretty good in the neutral zone, tight defensively, and have a solid PK. So I thought we needed to do it that way and it worked out well for us. -Cassidy
The next time the Golden Knights see the Wild would likely not be until the Western Conference Final. But there’s another team with a similar makeup as the Wild they could see much sooner, the Winnipeg Jets. Winnipeg deploys three right-side defensemen all standing 6’0″ or smaller, each likes to get forward offensively, and the biggest physically is 194-pound Nate Schmidt.
The same cannot be said about a few of the Golden Knights’ other potential matchups. Edmonton, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Calgary all have a bit larger defensive units that make holding the puck a bit tougher a task than Vegas experienced against Minnesota.
Puck possession will be a crucial aspect of Vegas’ success in the playoffs. If they can continue to exploit matchups as they did against the Wild, the offensive droughts they’ve experienced in the past shouldn’t return this postseason.