For the first time, the Vegas Golden Knights are facing elimination as they head into tonight’s do-or-die Game 5 matchup against the Washington Capitals. The Knights now trail 3-1 in the series after a 6-2 loss in Washington Monday night, making tonight’s game literally a must-win situation.
Vegas came out strong in Game 4 but failed to convert on three early quality scoring chances, including an empty-net opportunity that has undoubtedly haunted James Neal all week. The so-called “puck luck” from the hockey gods was not on Vegas’ side, and the Capitals quickly turned the tide with three first-period goals, including one from Devante Smith-Pelly with 20.5 seconds remaining in the frame. Even though the Knights got off to an impressive start and came oh so close to taking an early lead, Washington carried a stunning 3-0 lead into intermission and scored three more in the final 40 minutes of the contest.
The key to tonight’s elimination game is pretty straightforward, as the only true objective is to win, however that may come to pass. Whether it’s getting a greasy goal or taking advantage of a bad bounce or a missed call or winning in quadruple overtime, the Knights have to find a way to win.
Obviously, there are certain things that will help Vegas achieve that goal. On that note, here’s what to watch for in tonight’s do-or-die Game 5.
Getting the first goal
Scoring the first goal tonight will not guarantee a win, but it could be a significant key to the game for the Golden Knights. Though they are only 1-1 when doing so in this series, the Golden Knights have a staggering 11-2 record when getting the first goal this postseason. That’s not a surprise considering Vegas’ regular-season record of 34-5-2 when lighting the lamp first (good for sixth overall in the NHL). But it’s even more significant in the playoffs, especially on home ice. Even though the Knights lost Game 2 after scoring first, fast starts have been a key component of Vegas’ success throughout the entire season. Even a small lead also would give Marc-Andre Fleury some much-needed breathing room. Plus, there’s something to be said about playing with the lead and re-solidifying some of the confidence that seems to have vanished from Vegas’ game in recent contests. An early goal not only would inject energy and belief into the lineup, but it would kick the raucous crowd at T-Mobile Arena into overdrive. That, in turn, might improve players’ confidence and assertiveness on the ice, which could be exactly the jump-start Vegas needs to get back in this series.
Time to bloom
Fleury needs to be better.
He entered this series as the clear frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the playoffs, and many believed he’d earn the honor regardless of the outcome of the series. However, things have changed. Of course, nothing is set in stone; Fleury very well could win three straight and carry the Knights to a Cup victory. That being said, his numbers in the Final compared to the previous three rounds are unrecognizable. But even so, Fleury’s .845 save percentage and 4.08 goals-against average through four games of this series don’t necessarily tell the whole picture. In fact, Fleury was not at fault on many of Washington’s goals when he was left exposed by poor defensive play in front of him. However, Fleury is no longer making the type of saves he made earlier in the playoffs.
There’s no doubt Fleury is the main reason the Knights are in the Final, but they need more from him. He has to not only outplay Braden Holtby but also make some of the saves he shouldn’t be expected to stop. A lot of that has to do with the defense, but Fleury is one player in the lineup who must step up if the Knights want to win.
Keep it simple
The Golden Knights need to simplify their game. Speed and relentless effort have been the foundations of a successful system all year long, but the Knights haven’t played like themselves in the last few games. Tentative play is likely to lead to turnovers, which is something the Knights don’t have the luxury of risking. Getting high-danger scoring chances is ideal, but the Knights need to just start by getting pucks on net. Hitting the net has been a struggle, especially since Washington has been blocking shots at an incredible rate (50 in the last two games), but sending pucks at Holtby and getting traffic in front of the crease will lead to chances and second opportunities, which the Knights must put in the back of the net. As well as Holtby has played this postseason, he is not immune to allowing soft goals. The Knights need to make life for Holtby very difficult, and they need to take his eyes away as often as possible.
Though Vegas must play to win rather than not to lose, making the “safe” play early on and focusing on a north-south game could go a long way. Making risky plays when exiting the zone, transitioning in the neutral zone or going on the forecheck could lead to more odd-man rushes for Washington, which have been excessive in recent games. Washington is going to play aggressively, and even if Fleury has an outstanding game, there’s only so much he can do when he has Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov coming in on a 2-on-1. So while the Knights can’t play passively, making reckless decisions out of desperation will not help them come out on top. The Knights’ fourth line has been so successful in part because of the simplicity with which it operates. That’s something Vegas’ entire lineup should consider, especially early on.
The Knights cannot take unnecessary penalties tonight.
The Capitals’ power play has been inconsistent throughout the postseason despite what the overall numbers might suggest (29.6 percent in the postseason, 33.3 percent in the series). But in the first three games, Washington had one power-play tally on eight attempts, so the numbers are skewed. That being said, Washington scored three of six of its goals on the man advantage in Game 4, which means the Knights must remain disciplined at all costs. One stupid decision potentially could change the outcome of the entire season, so Vegas can’t commit unnecessary penalties if there’s even a chance Washington’s power play could take control of the game.
Brayden McNabb retaliated late in Game 4 by boarding T.J. Oshie after he delivered a reverse hit on Colin Miller. Though Miller suffered a broken nose on the play, a replay from another angle shows that Oshie’s arm never made contact with Miller’s face or head on the play; instead, Miller’s face hit Oshie’s helmet, which is what caused the injury. Not calling a penalty on the hit was the correct call, especially considering Neal didn’t get a penalty on his similar reverse hit on Brooks Orpik in Game 3. Even though (at 5-2) the game was pretty much out of reach when McNabb sent Oshie face-first into the boards, that’s a play that can’t be made tonight. Even if Washington’s power play has been inconsistent, Vegas can’t afford to give the Capitals extra chances. Vegas has to be focused and smart tonight, and discipline will be key.
Gerard Gallant made one lineup adjustment prior to Game 4 by inserting Tomas Tatar into the lineup and scratching David Perron. Though he considers Game 4 to be Vegas’ best game of the series and one of its best efforts in the postseason, there’s no tomorrow if tonight isn’t Vegas’ best game of the playoffs. Therefore, there’s certainly an expectation that Gallant will make further adjustments.
One option is bringing William Carrier back into the mix. Carrier has not played since the second-round matchup against San Jose but could take Ryan Reaves’ spot on the fourth line (the two rotated on the fourth line in yesterday’s practice). Another option would be to scratch Ryan Carpenter and have both Tatar and Perron suit up. Tatar had a solid game the other night, finishing with a Corsi For percentage of 75.0 in just under nine minutes of 5v5 ice time while registering one shot, two hits and a plus-one rating. Tatar, Perron and Carpenter all rotated on the third line with Cody Eakin in practice, so it appears as though two of the three wingers could get the nod in tonight’s game.
One thing is for sure, though: the Knights need a lot more from the top-line unit of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. Smith scored Vegas’ second goal in Game 4, and Marchessault has been Vegas’ best forward in recent games, but the trio that made up one of the best lines in hockey in the regular season and in the early rounds of the playoffs needs to get it done tonight. The line has combined for eight points through four games of this series but collectively recorded 47 points in 15 games prior to the Final. That production has been missing, and considering the urgency with which the Knights have to approach this game, it’s time for the top line to take over.
Regardless of what happens tonight, the fact that Lord Stanley’s Cup will be in the building, in the Golden Knights’ building, in June, is pretty remarkable. But we are far from looking back at this incredible season. It’s not over. Not at all. Not only have the Capitals blown more 3-1 series leads (5) than any other franchise in NHL history, but the Knights have shown that they can overcome pretty much anything. While the thought of needing to win three straight in the Stanley Cup Final is daunting, Vegas just has to focus on winning one.
The Knights have to win a hockey game. It’s as simple as that. It’s something they’ve done many times and in many ways this season, and it’s something they are capable of doing. Clearly, the Washington Capitals are not playing around, but if Vegas can stick to its game, play more responsibly on defense and perhaps get a bounce or two, this is a brand new series. It’s called home-ice advantage for a reason; the Knights need to take advantage of being on home ice in front of their home fans. It doesn’t get much bigger than this, and Vegas needs everyone to rise to the occasion. It’s time for the Golden Misfits to show the world what they’re really made of, and you can be sure they will give it everything they have.
How to Watch
Time: 5 p.m. PT
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM