Remember Game 1 against the Winnipeg Jets where the Vegas Golden Knights lost 4-2 and looked completely out of sorts? It’s almost as if that game was a reminder to them to play their game, which is what they’ve done ever since. And, well, the results speak for themselves.
The thing about the Knights’ game, though, is it truly is a simple one. Skate hard, be aggressive, use your speed to generate breakouts, move the puck, fill empty spaces after you move the puck, drive the net... you know, pretty simple hockey tactics.
However, what has propelled the Knights throughout this season — and put them one game away from the Stanley Cup Final — is their tenacious forecheck.
The Knights’ players and coaches claim their forecheck is “nothing special”, which tactically is true, but the way they aggressively use their 1-2-2 forecheck is what sets them apart. Obviously, the Knights have talented players, but what really drives their forecheck is quick thinking and pure hustle.
For example, look how aggressive Tomas Tatar is on this play once he realizes Ryan Carpenter, who is usually F1 on the forecheck (the first forward), is tied up in the corner with Dustin Byfuglien.
Yes, Paul Stastny does lose his footing on this play, and, yes, this is a defensive breakdown by the Jets, but that all stems from the Knights’ pressure. Once Tatar forces Stastny into a turnover, Carpenter slides the puck over to Theodore, who makes a great decision to pinch into the empty high-slot, and then over to Tatar for the goal.
Tatar has all sorts of time in front of the net to jam this puck in because the Jets’ defense is completely out of position. This kind of gritty hustle play is Vegas in a nutshell and it’s a big reason why they’re having so much success against Winnipeg.
Another prime example of the “gritty hustle plays” I’m talking about was in Game 3 when James Neal scored a relatively easy tap-in goal thanks to Erik Haula’s incredible effort on the forecheck.
When you watch this goal again, Haula’s effort clearly stands out. He’s the F1 on this forecheck and will deservedly get most of the credit for doing the dirty work and forcing Jets’ goalie Connor Hellebuyck into a turnover.
But James Neal, who is the F2 on this play, also deserves credit for making a great read. Overall, it’s a perfect forecheck where the F1 generates a ton of pressure, which results in a turnover, and the F2 reads the play and reacts by filling an empty space on the ice, which results in a goal.
These kind of goals are nothing new for Vegas, though. They've been doing this all year. It’s probably just more noticeable now during the postseason because every game is under the microscope. Point in case, here’s another example from this postseason against the Sharks:
What makes this goal great is just how quickly Reilly Smith and William Karlsson eliminate space and contain the Sharks’ breakout. Their aggressive play forces San Jose into a turnover and before you know it Vegas’ top line is attacking with a full a head of steam.
This kind of tenacious playing style is contagious and you see it spill into other facets of the Knights’ game because it forces teams to make quick decisions due to the constant barrage of pressure.
A good example of this was the Knights’ power play goal in Game 4. Vegas was buzzing prior to the power play and they were simply out-skating Winnipeg during the first few minutes of the game. The Knights’ effort carried over into their power play and they hit pay dirt.
When you watch this goal, keep an eye on where Byfuglien is after the draw and what Alex Tuch does with his stick in front of the net.
The Jets love to be aggressive, too, but I’m honestly not sure what Byfuglien was doing up so high. His decision to drift after the draw forced Mark Scheifele to slide over to Jonathan Marchessault, which then opened up a nice lane for Wild Bill to slide into and hammer home a beautiful feed from Marchy. Also, notice Tuch point to his left in front of the net. It’s just an all-around great quick thinking play by the Knights’ PP.
Some of these goals are generated from mistakes, like the power play goal above, or even Smith’s game-winner in Game 4, but the constant in all of these goals is the Knights’ effort level, which is also the driving force behind their phenomenal forecheck.
Chalking up the Knights’ success on the forecheck to effort and quick decision making might sound like too simple of a description, but it truly is what they’re doing. It also doesn't hurt that Marc-Andre Fleury is playing out of his mind, but that’s for another post. In the meantime, appreciate the simple greatness that is the Knights’ relentless forecheck.