Call it nerves or a case of stage fright, but the Golden Knights haven’t quite looked themselves through two games. Back on the road and looking to bounce back, though, Vegas is confident their best hockey is ahead of them.
WASHINGTON – Among the myriad of reasons why the Vegas Golden Knights have been so successful this season is the fact that they have done an outstanding job of tuning out the white noise. They have not gotten caught up in the fact that they are the most successful expansion franchise in the history of professional sports. They’ve been able to ignore the lure of the Las Vegas Strip. And they’ve stayed incredibly grounded and businesslike through their run to the Stanley Cup final.
Or as defenseman Nate Schmidt put it: “Our team does a really great job of not letting the game get too big for us.”
But here, on the biggest stage in the hockey world, there are chinks beginning to show in the armor a little. (Couldn’t help it.) Through the first two games of the final, the Knights have shown they might just be in a little over their heads and that the glare of the spotlight is getting to them. By their own admission, they haven’t been particularly good. They could very well be down 2-0 going into Game 3 Saturday night. They’ve been guilty of turning pucks over in bad areas of the ice. And Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who came into the final as the odds-on favorite to win the Conn Smythe Trophy, has put up an .870 save percentage in the first two games.
“One thing is external, which you do on the ice, and the other thing is internal, which is making sure you calm your nerves,” Schmidt said. “Through the first two games, I just didn’t feel like (we were) ourselves, whether it was on the bench or on the ice.”
Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant agrees with the assessment that we have not seen the best of his team so far in the final. He said his team’s two best games of the playoffs were Games 2 and 5 against the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference final and both those games were on the road. The Golden Knights are 6-2 on the road in these playoffs and are hoping to continue the home struggles for the Capitals, who are just 4-5 at the Capital One Center in these playoffs.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey,” Gallant said. “It’s the final and everyone gets so hyped up and you try to do too much sometimes in the neutral zone and make plays that aren’t there. Just keep the game simple, just play the game the way you’ve played all season long and you can’t change now. It’s too late to change.”
But something is going to have to change for the Golden Knights if they want to have sustained success in the final. First, they’re going to have to find a way to get through the clogged neutral zone and the defensive wall at the blueline the Capitals have put up. Speed, which the Knights have in abundance, can often beat that kind of trapping style. But another way to do it is instead of trying to make plays at the blueline, get the puck behind the opponent’s defense and work it down low.
“I know it sounds basic, but I think we’re getting caught into doing things that we usually aren’t doing, which is turning the puck over a lot,” Schmidt said. “That’s something that we do really well, which is not doing that and I think that’s the biggest thing going into Game 3 that we need to do. They did a very good job of making sure our guys couldn’t come full speed at them and if they did we had to dump it and if we tried to make plays, they had good sticks and breaking up plays at the blueline.”
The important thing for the Golden Knights is that regardless of whether they’re at home or on the road, they’ve been able to bounce back from losses with a lot of resilience. They’ve won each game following their previous three losses in the playoffs and have outscored their opponents by a 12-7 margin.
“I think we’re good at putting games behind us and moving on,” Fleury said. “So we’ll be just fine.”
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.