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Golden Knights’ defense needs to find ways to slow down the Capitals

Vegas’s blue line has been better in every series, but has been a massive concern through two games. Here’s how they can fix it.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Washington Capitals at Vegas Golden Knights
Washington Capitals center Lars Eller (20) reaches for the puck against Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller (6) and Luca Sbisa (47)
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

In the first two Stanley Cup Final games against the Washington Capitals, the Vegas Golden Knights have allowed seven goals. After series where the opponents totaled three, 14, and 10 goals in four, six, and five games respectively, seven in two games is not... great.

Even with Marc-Andre Fleury posting a .870 save percentage, the defense has not done its job.

The defense has allowed 11 high-danger chances per game to the Capitals, which is the second-worst pace for the team this offseason (behind the Winnipeg Jets, who got 12). The Golden Knights’ allowance of two high-danger goals per game is their worst mark yet.

The penalty kill is also at its worst, having killed just 67 percent of the penalties (yes, it’s early, but it is still concerning). While at 5-on-5 the Golden Knights are allowing just 48.5 shot attempts per game (third-best this postseason) and 22.5 shots per game (lowest pace in these playoffs for Vegas), they are allowing their worst ratio of high-danger chances versus shots on goal, at nearly a 1:2 ratio.

Here is the heat map for the first two games:

Ignore the fact that most goals on Braden Holtby come from one very clear area on his left side. That’s a later article.

The Capitals have a larger blue area in front of Fleury. Their goals are coming from across the crease. That means the Knights have more than one area on which to crack down. The one goal from the middle of the faceoff circle can probably be ignored, as that was the bouncing puck from Brooks Orpik that required more than a bit of luck.

It’s clear that the Capitals are getting the better chances, not just in Game 2, but throughout the series. That’s on the defense.

A look at the film

Heading to the film room, it’s easy to see what’s cost the Golden Knights not just goals, but now a game. What do the following three goals all have in common?

If your answer was, “How the heck is that skater who just scored wide open coming into the crease,” the answer is: that’s what I’m talking about. The defense has blown coverage too many times so far in this series, and while Fleury has, again, not been his usual marvelous self, the defense is not helping.

They need to stay attached at the hip to their assignment. The blue liners need to remember to face that assignment (*cough* Colin Miller) and not an empty net.

They also need to find a way to close passing lanes. While three of the goals weren’t as blatantly on the defense as these (one was pushed in by Fleury, one was a deflection, and one was Orpik’s bouncer), they all featured passing that could have been broken up.

The Golden Knights to remember that there’s always another Capital. They need to focus on containing each member of that team in the defensive zone, and not to let them escape coverage. It’s not good when that happens. If the Knights are able to keep the Capitals in front of them, and read the play, they’ll be able to shut down that offense.

Below are some examples of Golden Knights players doing just that, collapsing passing lanes, finding ways to pressure people to the outside, and containing their assignment.

See also: Brayden McNabb’s great defensive stop on Lars Eller at the end of Game 1.

Individual defensemen

Shea Theodore has played the most minutes of anybody on the Knights in the Cup Final, with 43:55 across all situations. At even strength, he has a 58.25 CF%, 52.94% of the shots, and 48 percent of the high-danger chances when he’s on the ice.

Theodore has been on ice for five goals for in this series — contributing directly to two of them — but has allowed four as well.

None of them were directly his fault, but Theodore could have done more to prevent those goals. He needs to get his stick in passing lanes more often.

If he played his stick right, the T.J. Oshie to John Carlson goal never would have happened. Neither would the Orpik goal, if he was tighter on Lars Eller and cut off the pass. There have been plays where he showed he’s beyond capable of shutting down offense. His problem all year has been consistency, but that is par for the course for a 22-year-old defenseman. If he’s able to find a groove in the Cup Final, Vegas will be that much more likely to planning a parade route.

Nate Schmidt has played the second-most minutes out of all Vegas defensemen. He has 42:19 across all situations and 37:55 at even strength. He has only allowed one goal, the one Tom Wilson scored. Schmidt was the guy assigned to Wilson, which is not great. It was Fleury’s fault in the end, but Schmidt could have done more.

Still, he and McNabb have been solid, and have helped lock down Alex Ovechkin at even strength. Schmidt’s not to blame in this series.

McNabb is especially not to blame in this series. Although he’s been very quiet, he’s been very good defensively and has the second-fewest high-danger chances allowed behind Schmidt at even strength.

Deryk Engelland has not been good at times throughout the series. In 38:48 of ice time, Engelland has four goals against. He and Tomas Nosek combined to allow Ovechkin an open shooting lane by ignoring the fact he existed on the power play. Engelland was in open space on the Carlson goal, and could have been doing more.

He has done good work in this series, at times, including making a few notable takeaways and pressuring forwards to the outside and out of the play. His age is beginning to show, however, and the heavy playoff minutes have taken a toll. Hopefully a few days of rest gets him ready for more.

Luca Sbisa has had a few bad shifts (he directly led to a few chances because of neutral zone turnovers) but looked like the best defenseman on ice for the Knights in Game 2.

In 29:57 across this series, Sbisa has only allowed one goal despite a good defensive workload. Even that wasn’t his fault as much as his defensive partner’s. Yes, Sbisa has stumbled at times, but when he cleans up his game, it’s clear why he’ll continue to play in this series.

Miller... yeah. He’s not a defensive defenseman, but his slips in the defensive zone have cost the Golden Knights two goals in 37:06 across all situations. He has to clean up his play and make sure he’s in position next time there’s a defensive zone faceoff.

In Conclusion

The biggest problem defensively for the Golden Knights has been cross-slot passes by the Capitals. The Golden Knights have found ways to shut those down, and to break up potential chances. They just need to do it on a more consistent basis, with fewer errors. They’ve done it in the past. They need to do it again.

All that being said, there’s been more than a few times where forwards could have done a lot more. James Neal completely ignored the fact that Nicklas Backstrom was skating past him en route to a goal. Nosek was part of that Ovechkin goal. Reilly Smith blew his coverage on the Carlson goal.

While the defense needs to be better, so do the forwards. Defense has been a team effort the entire season. A team effort doesn’t work when a sizable portion of the team stops putting in that effort.

“They’re looking for the good play,” Schmidt said, in reference to the Capitals. “When they’re making their plays, they’re making their plays to guys with time and space. I also think us, as a defensive group, we need to be a little tighter in doing our job. Forwards also have to do a little bit better in the backcheck. It’s more of a collective group effort in front of Flower. He’s been awesome for us. We just need to be better.”

Let’s just go back to the first two rounds, shall we? That Los Angeles Kings series sure was nice. Maybe play that way?