So, that wasn’t fun. As the Las Vegas valley watched their beloved VGK Wednesday night, many probably experienced similar emotions. Annoyed, anxious, irritated, and maybe a little bit of anger. The Golden Knights and their sluggish play the last eight games, only winning one of them in that span, followed them into Game One of the playoffs against the San Jose Sharks losing by a score of 5-2 Wednesday night.
Going into this series, Vegas had to refrain from one thing against a potent San Jose offense, and that’s take penalties, 34 minutes worth to be exact. Unfortunately for Vegas, that is exactly what they did and it burned them, pun not intended, a couple of times. When Vegas was at even strength and played 5v5, the Sharks only scored once, and Vegas scored once. The constant parade to the penalty box is what doomed Vegas in.
One thing Vegas did very well last year in the playoffs was get on teams fast. To the start the game, the Knights did not have clean breakouts out of their zone, they couldn’t put Burns and Karlsson on their heels, and they did not test Martin Jones who has had a below average season. This theme was seen throughout the game with the exception of the last five minutes of the third. Mark Stone scored his second goal of the game, Reilly Smith and Paul Stastny had a couple of glorious chances, and Marchessault clanked one off the post. A couple bounces, and Vegas could have very well tied the game they did not deserve to win. Coach Gerard Gallant was not happy with his team’s performance.
Gerard Gallant- “They outplayed us in every facet of the game. We weren’t near good enough tonight.” #VegasBorn— Jesse Granger (@JesseGranger_) April 11, 2019
The players knew it, too. Gallant said going into this series this is the healthiest their team had been all season. With the exception of Miller being a healthy scratch for Nick Holden, Gallant had his whole team healthy. That decision by my guess what to opt for a player who is less likely to take penalties in Holden (14 penalty minutes this season) for a guy like Miller who had 44 penalty minutes this season. Nick Holden did take a two minute penalty to open the third period.
There were some bright spots to the game for the Knights. The powerplay looked competent for the first time in a long time, going 1-4 for the night. Their entrances were clean, and they generated many high-danger chances. Vegas also did a good job blocking shots, blocking a total of 21 of them. This is key moving forward in this series because San Jose loves to run their offense through their blue line with Burns and Karlsson.
They thrive on shots from the point and if VGK continues to pressure them up high and not allow them to take those long shots where their dynamic forward can tip the puck, and cause havoc in front of Fleury, good results should come for Vegas. Lastly, Mark Stone looked like he was excited to play some playoff hockey, something he only got to do a few times in Ottawa.
What do the Knights need to do looking to equalize the series in game two? Remember if the Knights take game 2, they have home ice the rest of the series. First and foremost, they MUST stay out of the penalty box. With San Jose having the sixth best powerplay in the league this year, they pose a real threat when they’re up a man. If you allow guys like Burns and Karlsson to skate around with more open ice, you’re going to have a bad time.
Four of their five goals came during when it was not 5v5. If they limit the penalties, and play with the pace they had at the end of the game, they will be in a great position to steal game two.
They need production from their blue line and/or their bottom six forwards. With as much star power that both teams have for their top six, it can arguably be a wash as far as who has the edge. The Sharks blue line is their edge, Vegas’s bottom six needs to be their edge. Tuch, Eakin, Reaves, Bellemare, Carrier, and Nosek/Carpenter/Pirri need to do what they do best. Third line needs to use their speed, and the fourth line needs to keep being physical WITHOUT taking penalties.
Lastly, get on Martin Jones early! He has given up a goal in the first five minutes of a game in over 70% of the games he starts in net this season. He has a sub .900 save percentage, with a 2.94 goals-against average. The Knights have chased him to the locker room early twice this year, and twice last year in the playoffs. The Golden Knights registered. Whopping 10 shots on goal TOTAL in the first two periods. That simply won’t cut it.
Overall, if the Knights manage to stay out of the penalty box, forecheck Burns and Karlsson, and manage to steal a goal or two on the powerplay, they should win game two. It all starts with executing passes out of their own zone, getting through the neutral zone with speed, and getting shots on Jones early. Also, there is no specific “stat” to measure this, but the Knights need to come out and “want” the game more. Those who have watched the Knights play over the last two season know when they are rolling from when they are reeling. They play with pace, their passes are crisp and have great zone-entries, and Fleury is allowed to see some shots to get into his groove. Come out with an edge, a chip on your shoulder, something to prove, or whatever you want to call it, but Gallant saw in game one that they were not the more “hungry” team.
Gallant – “The biggest thing for me was they were the hungrier hockey team, and that bothered me.”
Remember last year in the Western Conference Final when Winnipeg blew out Vegas in game one in Winnipeg? Everyone in the national media said “The Knights have finally met their match, its over.” They come back in game two and Marchessault scores two goals, and the Knights go on to win four straight to win the series. Gerard Gallant and his team respond well to adversity, and that’s been apparent his whole tenure as the head coach. Keep the faith VGK fans, this series is just getting started.