The Vegas Golden Knights kicked off the 2021 NHL season with a 5-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks last night at T-Mobile Arena. Mark Stone had a goal and an assist to lead the offense and Robin Lehner stopped 20-of-22 shots for the win.
Here are Tom Callahan’s quick takeaways and analysis.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that Vegas started the season with only five D on the roster because that’s how they are cap compliant. Especially after the VGK built an early 2-0 lead, the unfamiliarity of playing in a rotation was apparent as the Ducks quickly tied the game with a pair of goals. Don’t worry, I’ll talk about Keegan Kolesar in a minute.
When you’re used to playing with a partner and on a particular side of the ice, you have a certain comfort with things. Whether pinching in the offensive zone, keeping a puck in along the boards, or gapping up as you face the oncoming rush, defensemen are used to doing things a certain way. Those habits are based not only on personal skill but also which side of the ice you’re on, which way you shoot, and how your partner plays as well. When you take that away, communication becomes even more important because suddenly you’re in unfamiliar territory on many levels.
Communication got better as the game wore on, and after those two quick goals by the Ducks Vegas settled down. Zach Whitecloud in particular was a bit scattershot in the early going but perhaps that was a bit of nerves from the youngster. Once he stopped chasing the puck and settled into the gameplan more things improved.
If Vegas stays with five D, expect more growing pains. Ultimately they’ll figure it out, but it’s hard to imagine not eventually going back to three defensive pairs.
Kolesar had a rough stretch there last night on those two Ducks goals. He was on the ice for both, and social media immediately hung him out to dry. There’s more to it than that, but I get that he was the easy scapegoat. And yes he looked out of sorts and appeared to be struggling. But I can’t pile on Kolesar with the rest of you. He’s there because his salary fits and he was the best option for the role. Not the right option. Vegas is doing what needs to be done to get under the cap. I firmly believe Kolesar will eventually be a full time contributor, but he doesn’t look quite ready for prime time and that’s ok. It’s not his fault the Golden Knights are in cap jail. That responsibility is way above his pay grade.
Keep plugging Keegan. Learning on the job is a rough way to go but experience is the best teacher. And fans, be patient. It’s way too early to pass judgements.
Shaking Off the Rust
I said it on Twitter (@CallahanOnAir, @VegasHockeyNow) last night and I’ll say it again. Everything we’re seeing right now that’s going wrong is fixable. It can be summed up as detail: timing, routes, communication and execution. All of those things are normally worked out with pre-season games and more practice. This year, teams curtailed (or were forbidden to) practice and played no actual games until opening the season Wednesday night. No matter which team you root for, be patient. These things will get better with a week or two on the ice as games continue.
Easing In Lehner
It was a good first outing for Robin Lehner, as despite the two goals against he didn’t have to stand on his head to earn the win. In fact, the schedule bodes well for both Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury to become game sharp. Pete DeBoer has already said he’s going to rotate the two netminders early, so expect to see them go back-and-forth for at least a few weeks.