Entering the Western Conference finals, the Vegas Golden Knights were the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. After four games of that series, they’re now one loss away from elimination.
The Dallas Stars’ suffocating defense, outstanding goaltending and opportunistic scoring have them up 3-1 in the series over Vegas, winning 2-1 on Saturday night in Game 4.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. In the playoffs, it’s never over until it’s over. We can’t look at it like a big mountain right now,” Knights center Jonathan Marchessault said.
But the Knights have quite a climb ahead of them if they’re going to earn the chance to play for the Stanley Cup. Here are four reasons they’re starting at elimination, and whether they can flip the script on any of them.
There’s a great moment in “Die Hard 2” when John McClane is crawling through the air ducts at Dulles Airport and openly ponders, “How can the same s— happen to the same guy twice?”
After four games of goalie Anton Khudobin, the Knights must be wondering the same thing. Against Vancouver, starter Jacob Markstrom was out, backup Thatcher Demko came in and played so well that Vegas coach Pete DeBoer started using his last name to describe getting owned by a goalie: “Demko’d.”
Dallas starter Ben Bishop has been unfit to play, and their “No. 1-A” Khudobin has played better against Vegas than he has in any round of the playoffs, with a .952 save percentage through four games.
“He’s a fighter. He’s a battler. He’s a competitive guy. He’s going to battle right to the end. When he’s reading the play as well as he was tonight, he’s making a lot of tough saves look easy,” Dallas coach Rick Bowness said of his goalie Saturday.
Khudobin is moving exceptionally well in his crease to square up to the shooter. When he has had to make key saves, his athleticism had broadcasters making Dominik Hasek comparisons, which is quite a thing to say. But the fact remains that Vegas hasn’t done enough in front of his crease.
“He’s fronting a lot of pucks. We’re making his life a little easy. We’ve got get more bodies in front,” Marchessault said.
Can the Knights fix this? Marchessault speaketh the truth. The Knights have talked about taking away the eyes of a hot goaltender in this series but haven’t actually done it enough. They had 13 shots on goal from defensemen in all situations in Game 4. Seven of them were unscreened shots on goal, although one, by Alec Martinez, beat Khudobin on a power play.
It’s true that not every shot is created equally. As Vegas defenseman Zach Whitecloud said, “You’ve gotta put the puck in a spot where the forwards can get a rebound as well. You’ve gotta shoot for certain purposes. We’ve gotta give them an opportunity for a tip and second chances, too.” Three shots by Knights defensemen were with a player in vicinity of the goal, and three more were with a screen.
But there just isn’t enough traffic in front of Khudobin, which is a product of a lack of patience by the Knights, and some good effort on the back end by Dallas.
DeBoer says his team isn’t getting in front of Khudobin enough. “I thought we made a better effort to get there. I thought we created some really good looks. I think we hit two or three posts. With one goal, we have to find ways to make it tougher on him. But the effort’s there to do that,” he said.
2. Big ‘D,’ as in ‘defense’
For two rounds, the Stars looked like a different team than in the regular season, averaging 3.76 goals per game and giving up 3.58 goals per game. Some of that was due to a tweak in their system, getting defensemen such as Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg more involved at 5-on-5; but most of that offensive uptick was due to porous defense and subpar goaltending from Calgary and Colorado.
In the Western Conference finals, the Stars have closed ranks defensively. In the first 13 games of the playoffs, they averaged 33.5 shots, juiced by a 62-shot effort in Game 4 against Calgary. Against Vegas, they’re averaging just 23 shots, collapsing around their own goal.
In some ways, this is what the Canucks did to support Demko and force a Game 7 in the conference semifinals. But Dallas isn’t just circling the wagons around Khudobin. The Stars are playing a more complete defensive game in front of him. The Golden Knights averaged 38.3 shots on goal in their previous 12 playoff-round games; against Dallas, they’re averaging 32.5. At 5-on-5 in their previous 12 playoff games, the Knights averaged 59.9 shot attempts per game; against Dallas in four games, that average dropped to 41.8.
One of the things DeBoer has trumpeted as a reason for optimism is high-danger chances. “The worst thing we can do is analyze this to death and start changing a bunch of things. If you can throw out double the amount of high-danger scoring chances as the other team on a given night, you’re going to trust that things are eventually going to swing your way,” he said.
But after two straight games with an advantage in high-danger shot attempts — a plus-6 in Game 2 and a plus-3 in Game 3 — the Knights trended in the opposite direction in Game 4, and were actually at a minus-1, per Natural Stat Trick.
Can the Knights fix this? Yes, if the timing is right. The Knights are clearly facing the best defensive team they’ve matched up against in the postseason. By their own admission, the Stars have yet to give a full 60-minute effort. Dallas isn’t going to give them much to work with, but when the Stars do, Vegas can’t just strike once. The Knights have to make it a gaping wound, not just a pinprick.
The Knights’ power-play goal to open the scoring in Game 4 was a great example. Vegas had three shots in a 27-second sequence and then another good chance a bit later. Then Joe Pavelski scores a fluky goal to tie the score, changing the game’s trajectory. “We had enough looks tonight to extend the lead,” DeBoer said.
But that’s the Dallas philosophy: “Don’t give up too much. Don’t fall too far behind. And then know — know — that we can come back no matter what,” Bowness said.
3. Top guys have been MIA
Bowness challenged his top players to produce in this series, and they’ve responded. Jamie Benn continues to build a Conn Smythe case, with two goals and two assists in the series including the winning goal in Game 4. Alexander Radulov had a Game 4 assist and the winning overtime goal in Game 3. Pavelski had the key goal in Game 4, and assisted on Radulov’s OT winner in Game 3.
Contrast that with Vegas. Marchessault and Reilly Smith haven’t scored a goal since Game 1 against Vancouver, both with two assists in that span. Max Pacioretty, who missed on a pair of great chances in Game 4, has gone seven games without a goal, with one assist in that span. William Karlsson scored in their Game 2 win and had an assist in Game 3, but is scoreless in four of six games. Mark Stone, who left Game 4 because of an injury and was laboring in the third period after returning, has gone scoreless in five of six games.
Can the Knights fix this? In a series where the margins are so thin and every goal is critical, the Stars’ stars are outshining their counterparts on the Golden Knights. Early in the series, DeBoer noted that his top stars’ stats were held in check due to Demko’s three games of mastery in the semifinals. But the trend has continued, and it’s a source of concern.
Stone’s health for Game 5 will go a long way toward answering that question. Right or wrong, the Knights see this as a result of some bad puck luck rather than lack of effort, with DeBoer saying the team has “created enough looks in the right people’s hands” against Dallas.
“All we need is to finish. The effort’s there. We’re creating a lot of really good looks,” DeBoer said. “Their best player, Joe Pavelski, takes a backhander, it rolls up the shaft of the stick and over our goalie’s shoulder. We haven’t gotten any of those and we gotta stick with it until we do.”
4. The mental challenge
The Knights are saying all the right things despite staring into the postseason abyss, but it’s undeniable that they’re a bit rattled. Taking nothing away from the Dallas penalty kill, but that 5-on-3 power play the Knights had in the third period of Game 4 was indicative of that tension. Vegas wasn’t urgent or dangerous on it. “Getting negative and squeezing your stick too tight isn’t going to help anyone. Stick to our game plan, a little more urgency on pucks when we do find them. We just have to find a way right now,” Smith said.
Dallas has managed to suck the life out of the Vegas offense and their “bravado,” as defenseman Nate Schmidt called it. For example, Thomas Drance of The Athletic has chronicled the chatter of teams from the Edmonton bubble all postseason. His diagnosis of the Golden Knights against the Stars? “Incredible how quiet Vegas’ bench has been in this series vs. the games against Vancouver and Chicago,” he wrote on Twitter.
Can the Knights fix this? As the former coach of the San Jose Sharks, DeBoer has seen Golden Knights playoff strife from the other bench. Vegas had a 3-1 series lead on the Sharks last postseason, only to see it squandered in a seven-game loss. So he knows this kind of comeback isn’t impossible, especially inside the bubble: DeBoer noted the number of series that went seven games following 3-1 rallies, including the semifinal series for both the Stars and Knights.
But in thinking about the Sharks’ rally in 2019 against Vegas, DeBoer noted that a different facet of their team carried San Jose to each win. His stars outshone those from Vegas in Game 5. Goalie Martin Jones stole Game 6. It was the power play that was the difference in Game 7, converting four times on that infamous five-minute major in the third period.
The Knights can fix this. They just need something or someone to be the spark. “This is a long way from over and we’re going to be a tough out,” DeBoer said.