Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In fact, the postseason is a time when the impossible becomes possible and the unimaginable becomes reality. This makes it a perfect setting for role players, bottom-six forwards and overall underdogs to step out of the shadows and rise to the occasion. With elite skill competing against elite skill every night, the games often are decided by unlikely heroes. Anyone can be clutch in the playoffs, regardless of what happened in the regular season.
But when it comes to the Golden Knights’ production thus far this postseason, the results have been extremely top-heavy offensively, with the top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith leading the way.
While it’s a positive thing that all three players are carrying their regular-season success into the second season, they can’t always do it alone.
The deeper teams get in the NHL playoffs, the greater the premium is on goals. It’s the “depth” guys who tend to grind out goals and really make a difference in games at this point in the season, and Vegas could really use a spark from its depth players.
For the Golden Knights, depth was supposed to be a strength entering the playoffs, with all four lines contributing throughout the regular season. But after 12 games of playoff hockey, the team is still waiting for its depth to contribute in a major way.
Surprisingly, not including Alex Tuch, who has skated on the second line and sees time on the man advantage, Cody Eakin was the only bottom-six forward that had scored a goal during the postseason prior to Tomas Tatar’s tally in Game 2. The Knights have gotten a combined zero goals from Ryan Carpenter, Tomas Nosek, Oscar Lindberg, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, William Carrier and Ryan Reaves.
Compare that to the Jets’ bottom-six forwards, who have scored nine goals this postseason (Brandon Tanev has four of them), and you can understand why the Knights struggled in Game 1 and why they may struggle against Winnipeg’s potent offense throughout the series.
The bottom six simply has to be better in this round. Carpenter has zero goals and four assists in 10 postseason games; now Tatar, Lindberg and Nosek each have one point, and Eakin has four, bringing the total among eight bottom-six forwards to 11 points. Eleven points from parts of the third line and many combinations of the fourth line in a total of 63 combined man-games played. That is not going to cut it.
Plus, Eakin does not have a point in this series, and Tuch has gone pointless in three straight contests. Further, three of Tuch’s four postseason goals have come on the power play, giving him just one even-strength goal during the playoffs.
As the bottom six has struggled, Gerard Gallant has leaned heavily on his top-six forwards, especially the top line. That line has been dominant thus far, combining to produce 12 goals and 41 points, which includes nine points through two games of this series. They’ve overwhelmed their opponents and have minimized the impact of elite playmakers like Anze Kopitar and Joe Pavelski.
But what happens as this group has to take on two powerhouse lines that includes the likes of Mark Scheifele (league-high 12 postseason goals), Blake Wheeler (league-high 15 postseason assists), Patrik Laine and the red-hot Paul Stastny? If you throw in excellent supporting players like Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers as well as rearguards like Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba and Tyler Myers, you can see how the Knights’ top line would have its hands full this series.
That’s not to say that the Jets will shut down the Knights’ top line. It would be unlikely for anyone to be able to truly shut down that line right now, but it’s fair to say that the Jets will be the Knights’ most difficult task yet. This means the second-line trio of James Neal, Erik Haula and David Perron will need to step up in a massive way in this series, but they will also be tied up against one of the Jets’ top two lines.
That leads us back to the bottom six. Again. They have to deliver in a major way if the Knights are going to win this series.
General manager George McPhee tried to improve his bottom six at the trade deadline by acquiring Tatar and adding Reaves, but both have been in and out of the lineup. However, Tatar does possess the kind of skillset that could inject some life into the Knights’ bottom six, which it seemingly did on his goal in the first period of Game 2. Whether he’ll stay in the lineup if Perron returns remains to be seen. Interestingly, Perron is one of only two top-six forwards still in the playoffs who has yet to score a goal; both Perron and Ehlers have seven assists and zero goals during the postseason.
Gallant has reworked the third and fourth lines on numerous occasions, and he’ll make some sort of adjustment should Perron return to the lineup in Game 3. Even as players have gone through scoring slumps, they have contributed in other ways. However, the collective scoring drought of the bottom six places a heavy burden on the top two lines, which could catch up to them in what could be a long series.
If the bottom six continues to be a non-factor offensively during the next few games of this series, Gallant may need to make further alterations. Of course, there’s always the possibility that Marc-Andre Fleury’s out-of-this-world play will continue, in which case the concern about the bottom six will be somewhat overstated. However, it will take a lot more than just the brilliance of Fleury to take down this Jets team, and the Knights could certainly use some depth scoring to improve their chances.