The Golden Knights took care of business as expected.
Despite three games decided by one goal, including one in overtime, Vegas handled itself as it should as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in five games in their first round series.
Albeit, it took a 4-3 win in Game 5 — while coming back from two goals down in the first period — to put the over-achieving Chicago club away, but the Golden Knights have earned themselves quite the rest heading into the second round.
The Golden Knights are the first team in the field of eight and don’t know who they’re facing yet; it could be the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames or Arizona Coyotes. The second round is tentatively set to start Aug. 23.
“It’s nice to win,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “They’re a persistent team. Their core players really played well as the series went on. We were glad to get it over with tonight, because they weren’t going away quietly.”
Vegas is in the second round for the second time in its three-year history, becoming the third franchise ever to reach such a feat; you’d have to go in the way-back machine to the 1927-29 New York Rangers and 1968-70 St. Louis Blues as the last teams to do that.
How did the Knights do it? Here’s how.
Goaltending came through
There wasn’t much rotating between Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury; the two split the back-to-back over the weekend with Fleury winning Game 3, and Lehner succumbing to the god-like ability that was Corey Crawford in Game 4.
Both did well when called upon. Lehner went 3-1 with a .905 save percentage but saw only 95 shots in those four starts. Fleury made 26 saves and allowed one goal in the Game 3 victory on Saturday.
But it was Lehner not only winning the series, but getting the best out of the team that traded him to Vegas at the deadline.
“It felt nice for me to close this out,” Lehner said. “It’s weird playing your old team, especially that group. They treated me well. All but love for that organization, but a huge win for us.”
Is it a goalie controversy? Lehner is 6-1 now as the Golden Knights’ starter. You go with the hot hand until the sizzling stops, which is a shame for Fleury having won both playoff starts and has to wait in the wings until called for.
DeBoer has been diplomatic about this, but unless more back-to-backs are in the cards, it’s likely going to be Lehner’s crease going forward until he falls off. The longer that goes, the longer the talks of what happens in the offseason go. Right now, Lehner has done his duty to earn the nod going forward, but one wonders how long that leash is.
The top line is good
We’ve gotten two looks at the top line at full strength, but the trio was at its best in Game 5.
William Karlsson had two assists, to Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, that flipped the momentum. It was deja vu — much like in Game 4, the Golden Knights trailed 2-0 in the first period and couldn’t solve Crawford. He stopped the first 12 shots, which included a plethora of highlight-reel saves.
Pacioretty’s goal came with 31 seconds remaining in the first period. Then, 57 seconds into the second after a strong opening draw from the fourth line, Karlsson found Stone for his fourth goal of the playoffs to tie the game.
Karlsson’s return to the top line was by way of Paul Stastny returning to the lineup after missing the past two games. Chandler Stephenson centered Stone and Pacioretty in Games 3 and 4, but did not register a point at 5-on-5.
Once Pacioretty scored, the dam broke. The group had a Corsi of 71.88 (23-9) and combined for five high-danger chances while allowing one. They set the tempo for the Golden Knights finally beating Crawford after 80 minutes of wondering how to perform voodoo.
“Crawford’s an unbelieveable goalie,” said forward Alex Tuch. “We knew he was going to come in ready to play. Last game ... obviously we were a little frustrated, but we had a gameplan to get not only more pucks, but more bodies to the net.”
Tuch said Pacioretty’s goal was a perfect example. Stone screened Crawford in front as Pacioretty was able to clean up Brayden McNabb’s pass and score.
Pacioretty said it was the best he’s felt since entering the bubble, and it showed. He led Vegas with 1.43 expected goals and 0.09 against; the line combined for 1.17 expected goals.
While the second line got its shine through Games 1 and 2, the top six fizzled when Stastny was unfit to play. Stastny back gives Vegas stability in the top six. If that’s obtained with how good Stone, Karlsson and Pacioretty can be, that line will carry them.
The third line is here to stay
It’s taken three seasons and now a third playoff run, but the Golden Knights may have stumbled upon a third line that works.
Nick Cousins, Nicolas Roy and Tuch had a strong Game 5 in response to their stellar Game 4 where they did everything right but score.
The trio was the second best line behind the top line with a Corsi of 75.00 percent (9-3); 48 hours after a 23-2 edge on Sunday.
Each player is making their own impact. Cousins brings the speed and subtle playmaking that comes with the ‘rat’ and ‘pest’ label that has been bestowed upon him. His four assists are tied for second on the team. Roy, considered a throw-in in the Erik Haula trade last summer with Carolina, has a goal and three assists in the playoffs. He’s also being trusted to take a faceoff, up one with over a minute to go, in the Vegas zone, against a future hall-of-famer in Jonathan Toews. He also won that draw.
Tuch entered the playoffs as the potential X-Factor and he’s living up to that billing; his four goals are tied for the team lead. He’s bounced back from an injury-plagued season to contribute at the right time.
If he stays healthy and that line continues to excel, it’s hard to find a top nine that can compete with Vegas.
DeBoer trusts his players
It was a rough night for Nate Schmidt and McNabb. A rough series, really.
The Golden Knights’ top defense pair committed two turnovers, one each, that led to two Chicago goals in Game 5. They allowed a combined five goals at 5-on-5 in the series.
DeBoer could’ve went to Alec Martinez and Shea Theodore for 10-15 minutes in the third period if he wanted to, but had enough trust in McNabb and Schmidt to bounce back. Schmidt played 8:53 in the third, while McNabb skated for 8:32.
It’s not like the two veterans wouldn’t have made up for it, but the decision to keep them out and shorten Zach Whitecloud and Nick Holden’s availability proved crucial after Tuch scored the winning goal 1:34 into the third. Martinez and Theodore were the best tandem this series; Theodore was a plus-6 while Martinez a plus-8. Their ice time dictates they’re the unofficial top pairing going forward.
If the Golden Knights want to make a Stanley Cup run, Schmidt and McNabb need to be better. But the fact DeBoer can establish that kind of trust in his guys in that kind of situation, while seemingly minute, is a great sign to see.
“They made us earn it,” DeBoer said. “It was a hard-fought hockey game; we got in that hole early. I just like how we’ve responded to adversity whenever it’s appeared during this playoff. We’ve been behind in games, there’s no panic. We stick with it, and grind away and find a way to get rewarded.”