Make no mistake, the Round Two clash of the titans between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche has been anything but an epic clash.
It’s been a beatdown.
In Game 1, when the Golden Knights were physically and emotionally spent, Colorado pounded them 7-1. The speed gap was startling. However, since that moment, since Ryan Reaves planted Ryan Graves into the ice for hurting Mattias Janmark (you can judge the hockey morality of that), the Golden Knights have pounded Colorado from pillar to post. From forest to the fortress and top to bottom, the Vegas Golden Knights have snowed over the Avalanche.
The scoreboard has been remarkably and deceivingly close. The play has not.
VGK winger Mark Stone nor his compadres were happy about the slashing call to Reilly Smith, which led to Mikko Rantanen’s goal the Avs’ Game 2 win in Denver.
Sorry, it was a penalty. It wasn’t “soft,” as multiple Golden Knights players called it. It was a VGK mistake, just as Vezina finalist Marc-Andre Fleury made a mistake on Friday night when he served an extra-large pizza into the slot for Carl Soderberg to clean up.
Only Golden Knights mistakes have kept Colorado in Games 2 and 3.
Otherwise, Vegas has dominated this Games 2 and 3 like few playoff games I’ve ever seen. I covered Pittsburgh vs. New York, Games 5 two weeks ago. That game lasted 83 minutes, and the Pittsburgh Penguins had approximately 70% of the scoring chances, hit a few posts, and lost.
The Penguins dominated the following game, too, but they lost and were done. Vegas was about six minutes from the same fate, but sometimes the hockey gods get it right.
Vegas deserved Game 2. They took back Game 3 by refusing to lose. They kept coming, coming, and coming until finally, not even Philipp Grubauer could stop them any longer.
“I think (Game 2) we played a great game and should have had a better outcome,” Jonathan Marchessault said. “We stuck with it. Obviously, we’re down 2-1, but tonight, we were the better team.”
Just 45 seconds after Marchessault tied the game, Max Pacioretty deflected Nic Holden’s floating point-shot past Grubauer, and the Vegas crowd went bonkers. My coffee had ripples from the sound.
A 2-1 deficit became a 3-2 Golden Knights win.
“Once we were able to break through, you use that momentum that (the crowd) gives us,” Pacioretty said. “The place was electric. You probably see and feel it…This is the best place to play, and especially in the playoffs, it’s a lot of fun.”
Yeah, we could feel it.
This is my first go covering a Vegas Golden Knights home game. I covered Fleury in Pittsburgh for years, actually from his NHL debut to the 2017 Stanley Cup.
I’ve covered some of the biggest events in hockey. I’ve been in Nashville when the noise level was deafening, but only the old barn in Pittsburgh that used to shake from the crazies in the rafters compared to what I saw in Game 3 (actually, a sequined Elvis and a portly fellow who liked to take off his shirt and wave vigorously used to show up in Pittsburgh, too).
Certainly, none of the arenas built in the last 30 years have the personality or culture of Vegas.
“Tonight was something else,” said winning goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. “We scored that third goal, and then you make a big save, and everyone’s chanting your name… it gives you goosebumps. I’m still getting them now… that’s what makes playing this game so much fun.”
But I digress.
This was about the Golden Knights thumping Colorado. Again. Mercilessly dominating them. It’s about head coach Pete DeBoer, who has taken a couple of teams to the Stanley Cup Final, including the 2016 San Jose Sharks, outcoaching Jared Bednar.
One tactical area in which Vegas has excelled is shutting down Colorado’s top line. Vegas has not played soft or allowed a gap at the blue line. When teams give MacKinnon space, they also give him speed.
Instead, the Golden Knights are hounding Colorado’s top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen for 200 feet.
Forecheck, backcheck, paycheck.
DeBoer is going top line vs. top line in his line matchups. Chandler Stephenson with Mark Stone and Pacioretty is playing tight to Colorado’s top line. Of course, playing too tight can be dangerous because MacKinnon’s speed can quickly make space or odd-man rushes and scoring chances.
But Nic Holden and Shea Theodore, who have primarily drawn the matchup from the blue line, have been in position to help.
“You’re not going to completely eliminate them. They’re going to get their chances. They’re one of the best lines in the league for a reason,” Stone said. “But we see ourselves as one of the best lines in the league, as well. Chandler’s speed has been a key for that…We’re trying to create O-zone time, make them come 200 feet.
If you the puck over with MacKinnon–he’s gone, and it puts a ton of pressure on your defense. I think Theodore back there, with Holden, have done a great job with gaps.”
That’s putting it mildly.
Without Nazem Kadri, Colorado looks like a weak one-line team. A soft, weak, outmatched, one-line team. Our sister site in Colorado certainly tore into the Avalanche performance.
The Vegas Golden Knights have outshot Colorado 74-32 over the last five regulation periods. That’s not just good. That’s ridiculous.
Mistakes happen. Series can change. But after the last 121 minutes, it appears the winner will be determined by one team.
Just like VGK overcame a 2-1 deficit in Game 3, they are well-positioned to overcame a 2-1 series deficit.
Deficit or not, the Round Two series is entirely VGK’s to win or lose.