Christmas has come and gone. Food was consumed, gifts were exchanged and innocent people were terrorized by their in-laws. Thursday night, however, we were given the best gift of all — the return of hockey after its three-day hiatus.
After losing two consecutive games in overtime just prior to the holiday break, the Vegas Golden Knights returned to action Thursday to take on the Colorado Avalanche and the elite first line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. In what we expected to be high-scoring affair, however, both teams did an admiral job of shutting down each other’s top players.
Vegas, however, ended up getting the better end of the defensive clash, picking up a pair of points in the 2-1 victory.
Schmidt, McNabb shut down Colorado’s top line
How did the Golden Knights manage to shut down arguably the best line in hockey? By matching their two best defensemen against Colorado’s top forwards. Looking at the shift chart below, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb were both on the ice for the majority of Colorado’s first line’s shifts, and it paid off for Vegas.
Granted, the Golden Knights couldn’t shut down that first line completely. Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon did manage to pick up assists on J.T. Compher’s power-play goal midway through the first period. At 5-on-5, though, quality chances were hard to come by for MacKinnon and company, and matching Schmidt and McNabb against that line was certainly part of the plan going into the contest.
“That’s part of their job, that’s part of the plan for us for sure. It doesn’t have to be every shift, but for the most part,” said head coach Gerard Gallant after the game. “They were great. Anytime you can shut that line down, they did a great job.”
Pirri nets the game-winner
The last few days were strange for supporters of forward Brandon Pirri. The 27-year-old was sent down to the AHL’s Chicago Wolves on Monday to make room for Max Pacioretty on the active roster, who was seemingly taken off of Vegas’ injured reserve list. Not long after, though, Pacioretty was placed back on IR and Pirri was back on the Golden Knights’ roster.
Pirri was indeed back in the lineup for Thursday night’s game against Colorado, and he made the most of his opportunity (again), scoring the game-winner midway through the final frame.
“I thought we played three solid periods,” said Pirri. “It’s fortunate that things are going well. It’s a great opportunity for me and I don’t want to waste it.”
“Pirri’s playing great. We are happy he’s called up and he’s doing a great job and he’s doing exactly what we expect from him,” said Gallant. “No one expected him to score four goals in four games, but he’s coming up and taking advantage of an opportunity and we really like what he’s doing.”
Second line as a whole makes an impact
While Pirri stole the show, it shouldn’t be much of a shock that his linemates were once again playing at the top of their game. Paul Stastny and Alex Tuch were excellent Thursday night, and it was Stastny’s goal (assisted by Tuch) that opened the scoring for Vegas just minutes after Colorado scored its only goal of the game.
Not a bad birthday gift for the 33-year-old.
Stastny and Pirri both finished the night with a 66.67 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 while Tuch’s 5-on-5 CF% of 68.00 was second only to William Carrier in the contest. The second line was Vegas’ most productive trio all game long, and it ended up being the difference.
“You know, Tuchy was really good today moving his feet and I think we all know where each guy’s going to be,” said Stastny. “I think when you have a shooter like Pirri, he kind of finds those quiet areas in the slot. And then for me and Tuchy, it’s kind of trying to get possession of that puck and trying to find them as quick as we can.”
Both goaltenders outstanding
While this was a defense-focused contest, shots certainly were not hard to come by. Vegas finished the night with 43 shots on goal while Colorado picked up 32. Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer made 41 saves on the night, and Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury made 31 in what wound up being his 50th win as a Golden Knight.
The third period was particularly notable for Fleury, as he made a couple huge stops that kept the momentum in Vegas’ favor.
“I wish it would have happened before the Christmas break, you know, with those two tough losses. But definitely nice. You get a few days off, rest, change your mind a bit. It’s good, good to come back in front of our fans and get a big – it was a good game, it was close all game long, so it’s nice to win that one.”
Penalty kill saves the day
The Golden Knights do not win this game without their aggressive penalty kill. Late in the game, Oscar Lindberg was sent to the penalty box for holding Colorado’s Patrik Nemeth. The Knights’ PK killed off that penalty, but Vegas was once again shorthanded immediately after the expiration of Colorado’s first power play. This time, it was Jon Merrill going to the box for high-sticking, and again, the PK stepped up.
Not to mention Colorado pulled Grubauer after the second power play, so Vegas was outmanned for close to six minutes of the final period.
“That was a key part of the game,” said Gallant. “When it’s 2-1 and they get two power plays back-to-back and then with the goalie pulled, those guys did an outstanding job, and good for them. I mean, they got scored on in their first PP five seconds into it, and a great play by Colorado, and then from that point on they did a great job.”