At this point, you probably know the Golden Knights are in the playoffs and are up 1-0 in the best-of-seven first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings. Wednesday night’s historic 1-0 win was just another first in the franchise’s epic inaugural campaign.
But the playoffs are known as the second season for a reason. Playoff hockey is a much different beast than regular season play, and Game 1 was a clear indication of just how tough of an opponent Los Angeles may be, especially given the team’s extensive playoff experience.
Two-time Stanley Cup champion and Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty will not be in the lineup tonight after receiving a one-game suspension from the Department of Player Safety for an illegal check to the head on William Carrier in Game 1. There was no penalty assessed on the play, and Carrier did not return after playing one of his best games of the season. However, he was on the ice earlier today and is a game-time decision, which is a great sign.
Oh boy. Carrier is down after taking a hit up high from Doughty. He's been physical with Doughty all night. pic.twitter.com/iB43bc7pwB— Ryan Quigley (@RP_Quigs) April 12, 2018
A Vegas loss tonight means the Kings tie up the series and reclaim home-ice advantage with three of the remaining five games to be held at Staples Center in Los Angeles. A win would give the Knights a 2-0 series lead. A 2-0 lead is no longer a comfortable one in today’s NHL, but it’s certainly a much more forgiving scenario than heading back to Los Angeles 1-1. That makes tonight’s opportunity with Doughty out of the fold that much more significant for the Golden Knights.
Here’s what to watch for in Game 2.
Without a Doughty
The biggest storyline in tonight’s contest will be the absence of Doughty. This is Doughty’s first suspension through 770 regular-season games and 82 postseason games.
Doughty, who disagreed with the NHL’s decision, is widely considered one of the best defensemen in the NHL, and he is a workhorse for Los Angeles. He played almost five minutes more than every other player on the Kings with 28:02 of ice time in Game 1, and he led the entire NHL in time on ice per game in the regular season (26:50).
With Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort still out with injuries, Los Angeles will have to rely more heavily on veteran defenders Alec Martinez and Dion Phaneuf, who finished Wednesday’s contest with 23.08 and 35.71 5v5 Corsi For percentages, respectively. Oscar Fantenberg finished with an impressive 58.14 Corsi For percentage, though that was likely due to the fact that he was skating with Doughty (59.57 percent). Brayden McNabb’s 58.06 Corsi For percentage must look pretty good to Los Angeles right about now.
Kevin Gravel is next in line for the Kings after playing in 16 regular season contests this season. Daniel Brickley, whom the Kings recently signed, is not eligible for postseason play.
Touching me, touching you
It was evident from the start of Game 1 that this was going to be a physical series. In fact, both teams combined for a ridiculous 127 hits. The series already has a nasty vibe to it, though it’s unclear if both sides will settle down a bit considering the league has drawn a line in the sand with Doughty’s message-sending suspension.
In the February home-and-home against Los Angeles, the Knights got away from what made them successful all season. However, Vegas was able to strike a balance in Game 1 between playing physically and maintaining the speed- and skill-driven style that was so successful during the regular season. Plus, everyone on the team bought in to the approach; all but three Knights skaters (Nate Schmidt, Jon Merrill, Tomas Nosek) recorded at least a hit.
While it remains to be seen if the Knights will be able to sustain such a high level of physical play during what could be an incredibly grinding series, it’s very important that that balance be maintained. Goals will be hard to come by with Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury patrolling the creases, so the Knights can’t lose sight of their north-south game that pushes the pace and generates offensive opportunities. With Doughty out of the mix, this will be especially true for the top-line trio of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith, who combined for just four shots on goal in Game 1 after an outstanding regular season as one of the most dominant lines in the NHL.
Even though the Kings will be without Doughty, that doesn’t mean Los Angeles will not have star power on the ice.
Quick, who won the Conn Smythe in 2012 as playoff MVP, has already made his presence felt with a solid 27-save performance in Game 1; he finished the contest with a .964 save percentage and surrendered only one goal.
But Selke Trophy-winner Anze Kopitar played a very limited role, and Jeff Carter was largely invisible. That should change tonight.
Kopitar is coming off a season in which he reached career highs in goals (35), assists (57) and points (92) and benefited greatly from Dustin Brown’s remarkable bounce-back campaign (Brown’s 28-goal and 61-point season was his best since 2007-2008). Brown came very close to tying the game Wednesday night and will continue to hang around the net in the offensive zone.
Carter missed most of the season but picked up 22 points in 27 games, including 19 in his last 21 games since returning to the lineup. He managed just two shots on goal the other night but scored two power play goals on 14 shots in two games against Vegas this season. Kopitar scored two goals and five points in four games against Vegas during the regular season; however, his 42.42 Corsi For percentage in Game 1 was uncharacteristically low for the Slovenian center, whose regular season Corsi For was 52.14 percent. Look for all three veteran forwards to play a much larger role in tonight’s effort.
The Knights may have scored only one goal in Game 1, but they competed for a full 60 minutes and never sat back on their lead. This is something that will be important tonight and moving forward.
Clearly, Los Angeles is resilient, as evidenced by their Feb. 26 comeback that saw them erase a two-goal deficit and tie the game with just 11 seconds left in the third period. Plus, this is a team that won the Stanley Cup as an eight seed, and Los Angeles is one of just a handful of teams in NHL history to have come back from a 3-0 series deficit. The Kings know what it takes to win in the playoffs, which makes it especially important that the Knights keep their foot on the pedal for the entire 60 minutes like they did Wednesday night.
Out of the box
As always, the Knights need to avoid unnecessary penalties and stay out of the box.
The Kings ranked 21st in the league in road power-play percentage during the regular season (17.8 percent). However, that percentage increased to 25 percent after Jan. 1, good for sixth overall in the league. While both teams went 0-for-3 on the man advantage in Game 1, things could open up a bit tonight.
Vegas’ home penalty kill was strong this season, ranking seventh overall in the NHL with an 84.1 percent efficiency. It became even stronger in the second half of the season, operating at 85.7 percent since Jan. 1. After a difficult stretch in February, the PK jumped back up to fourth overall with an outstanding 91.3 percent kill rate since Mar. 1.
But the best way to kill a penalty is not to take one in the first place. Special teams can determine the outcome of any game, which is only exacerbated in a playoff setting.
How to Watch
TIme: 7 p.m. PT
TV: NBCSN, AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM