When the Vegas Golden Knights and Toronto Maple Leafs face one another it is expected that defense will be not just optional, but a complete myth. A rumor, spoken in hushed tones among friends. As though the word itself is somehow dirty.
So when the Knights roared out of the gates with multiple grade-A scoring chances to start the game, only to be matched by the Leafs creating chances of their own, the script for a high-scoring affair appeared to be written.
It didn’t quite end up that way, but that had little to do with anything closely resembling team defense.
Toronto held a 2-1 lead throughout most of the third period before scoring an empty-net goal to put this one away as the Golden Knights’ four-game road trip got off to a tough start. The more significant loss, however, could be long-term, as Erik Haula suffered a nasty lower-body injury and had to be taken off the ice on a stretcher.
Story of the first period - Ryan Reaves and a complete lack of defense
TRhe veteran enforcer, who has apparently redesigned his game this season to be a fourth-line grinder with offensive skills, was injured just 24 seconds into his first shift.
Contrary to what history and everything I’ve ever known about hockey might tell me, this could have been a major blow to the Golden Knights, who were attempting to slow down one of the truly elite offenses in the game. One way to do that is to tire them down with constant pressure and contact.
Luckily he would return later on in the period and, inexplicably, I could have been seen taking a sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Maple Leafs hadn’t scored in the first two periods of a home game in their last five home contests, the opening minutes of the game suggested that such things would not continue.
Just 5:30 into the period Toronto would break through.
Connor Brown— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 7, 2018
Strong play on the puck to strip the defenceman and wire one on Fleury. 1-0 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/CSl7lm6Pkd
A turnover caused by both a great play by Leafs forward Connor Brown and a bit of nonchalance with the puck by Vegas defenseman Nick Holden put the Leafs up 1-0.
Shots at the end of the period were 13-8 for Vegas as both goalies looked sharp early.
Story of the second period - Not starting on time but otherwise dominating the period
The second period started in a flash.
Before people had even gotten back to their seats (though, admittedly in Toronto that can take half the period), in fact just nine seconds into the frame, Mitch Marner and John Tavares streaked into the Knights’ zone.
That rarely leads to good things for those on the defensive side of the equation, and it certainly didn’t for the Golden Knights as Marner would put the Leafs up by two in the blink of an eye.
Mitch Marner— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 7, 2018
9 seconds into the 2nd period Tavares steals the puck and feeds Marner for his 5th of the season. 2-0 Leafs. pic.twitter.com/2x7b7Ml3ru
One of the things coaches preach is “starting on time,” which essentially means not letting teams come out and roll over you to start a period. There is no time to ease into a game at the NHL level. Come out with your best effort right from the start.
The Golden Knights didn’t do that, Marc-Andre Fleury was left hung out to dry, and Toronto made them pay.
Fortunately, Vegas more or less took over after that, out-shooting the Leafs 17-8 in the period, 29-16 overall at that point in the game. Shot attempts through two were 61-28 for Vegas.
It helped that the Maple Leafs iced the puck approximately 1967 times (I’m a Leafs fan, I’m allowed to make that joke). It got to the point where I had to wonder if it was just part of their lead-protecting strategy.
One person who didn’t have a shot attempt was William Karlsson, whom the broadcast mentioned didn’t look engaged in the game. At least not until the third period when he seemed to come alive, nearly tying the game on a couple of occasions.
Finally, a shot coming off the stick of Shea Theodore that Cody Eakin managed to get a stick on put one behind Frederik Andersen. It was Eakin’s fourth of the season, and it pulled the Knights within one.
Eakin tips the point shot under Freddy's glove and in. Vegas gets their first of the game. 2-1. pic.twitter.com/pcj5x5Pwwh— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 7, 2018
Story of the third period - Haula goes down, goaltending reigns supreme
Listen, look away if you’re squeamish. Scroll down a bit. No one will blame you.
Five minutes into the third period on what appeared to be a rather benign check from Patrick Marleau, Haula went down hard, his leg bending in ways legs should not bend, and he would not get back up.
On replay his... Well, just look.
Erik Haula is being stretchered off the ice after taking this hit from Patrick Marleau. Landed on his right knee awkwardly as he fell to the ice. pic.twitter.com/xDSgutIqnB— Ryan Quigley (@RP_Quigs) November 7, 2018
It’s bad. He had to be stretchered off the ice.
This was the story of the game for the Golden Knights, who are already missing Paul Stastny, but the period and game went on and so do we.
It is true that so far this season Fleury hasn’t always been sharp. His save percentage entering the game was .901, after all. That’s rough for a goalie just signed to a contract extension by a general manager who likely expects him to remain elite.
That said, both goalies were fantastic in this one.
As mentioned, defense was not to be found in this game and both goalies were expected to stand on their heads just to give their respective team a chance to win. And both were equal to the task.
Fleury made 18 saves while Andersen stopped 36 of 37 Golden Knights shots, but don’t let the shot totals fool you. Fleury was tested, too.
Flower with the flashy glove save on Johnsson. pic.twitter.com/7UYb2Xg0qq— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 7, 2018
JT feeds Marner but Fleury comes up big. pic.twitter.com/j2TQR2nxeB— Flintor (@TheFlintor) November 7, 2018
The Golden Knights had their chances tonight. They had three chances on the man advantage to the Leafs’ one. They stayed out of the box and didn’t give the Leafs’ high-powered power play a chance to work. They won the shot battle significantly and, if not for Andersen, they may have won the game.
But, they didn’t.
Vegas pulled the goalie with over two minutes left in the final frame but spent a lot of that time in the neutral zone trying to gather possession of the puck. Unfortunately, the Knights couldn’t do it, and with 34.1 seconds left, Nazem Kadri put the Leafs up by two, effectively ending the game.
Vegas now falls to 2-6-0 on the road this season.
Now all thoughts must go to Haula, whose injury, we hope, looked worse than it actually actually was.
The Golden Knights are next in action Thursday night in Ottawa as they take on the Senators.