This was supposed to be a regular second round series.
In a normal setting, we would talk about how the Golden Knights, the top seed in the Western Conference, got what they hoped for; a team not named the St. Louis Blues to face them in Round 2. We would be talking about how the Canucks shocked the world and beat the Blues in six games to dethrone the reigning Stanley Cup champions.
That would be the normal thing to do. Instead, as teams enter Game 1 on Sunday, we’re left wondering what is to become of the Golden Knights in what might be the biggest dilemma they’ve had as an NHL team.
Instead of talking about hockey, the top storyline is Marc-Andre Fleury’s agent tweeting a picture of his client being stabbed in the back with a sword, the name on the blade being that of Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer, and piercing through his chest as blood drips.
Who says hockey is boring?
At the time of publishing, we’re not sure what’s going through the head of Fleury hours before puck drop. We don’t know if Fleury was in full support of this, or if agent Allan Walsh went rogue and spoke on behalf of his client.
It is what it is, and the Golden Knights have questions to answer. DeBoer has to answer to this; Fleury will surely have to answer for this in some capacity. But whether or not we get those answers right away remain to be seen. Vegas has a hockey game to play, and have to be up for a game Vancouver squad that just eliminated the Blues to ensure there will be a different Stanley Cup champion for the 20th time in the past 21 years.
Golden Knights projected lineup
Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Nick Cousins — Nicolas Roy — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Chandler Stephenson — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Canucks projected lineup
J.T. Miller — Elias Pettersson — Jake Virtanen
Tanner Pearson — Bo Horvat — Brock Boeser
Antoine Roussel — Adam Gaudette — Brandon Sutter
Tyler Motte — Jay Beagle — Loui Eriksson
Quinn Hughes — Christopher Tanev
Oscar Fantenberg — Jordie Benn
Moving beyond the drama
No matter how you slice it, there’s a goalie controversy in our midst. The Golden Knights have been drama free for the better part of three seasons now; part of that is due to the culture Vegas has built in that time frame. Not since the days of Vadim Schipachyov has a player expressed his frustration with the organization.
But this is no ordinary drama. Robin Lehner is likely going to be the starter for Game 1 against the Canucks, and if the series goes how many hope, Lehner may be the only goalie that sees the series for Vegas. There is no back-to-back guaranteed in this stretch. Lehner could very well be the starter with the first five games being played every other day.
So far, Lehner has the hot hand at 5-1 in the postseason. The numbers don’t scream “I deserve the starting crease” but he’s won games, and being 8-1-0 in a Golden Knights uniform since being acquired from Chicago at the February trade deadline is going to give DeBoer all the reason in the world to believe he should go with Lehner.
But how much is this Fleury-Walsh drama going to impact this series? Time will ultimately tell. We’ll find out as early as Sunday morning if Fleury will even speak up on this and if he actually feels like he’s being stabbed in the back by the coach who replaced Gerard Gallant on Jan. 15. We’re going to find out right away if this group is fully distracted by what’s happening.
If the Golden Knights, as Elliotte Friedman reported Saturday, feel confident that this will not cause a distraction for Vegas as they pursue a championship, then c’est la vie. But unless Lehner turns into a pumpkin, it’s hard to see him losing the starter’s crease, which could be a situation a lot of Golden Knights fans are not prepared to endure.
Handling Vancouver’s young guns and goalie
The Golden Knights have an opponent other than themselves, lest we forget. The Canucks are playing beyond the first round for the first time since their Stanley Cup Final run in 2011. Not many expected them to make it to this point. The way the Canucks defeated the Blues in the first round is to be commended.
Sure, it’s commonplace for the defending Stanley Cup champion to lose in the first round, as was the case for the Washington Capitals last season. The Blues didn’t appear to be in sync from the moment the round robin began, thus opening the door for Vancouver to make a push.
“What I’ve been most impressed with, they’re a different team than they were prior to the pause,” DeBoer said. “They’ve got a heightened awareness of defending and harder to play against defensively. When you add some of the skill and speed and offense they’re generating, that’s made them a dangerous team.”
Full credit should go to Travis Green’s club for not only how they defeated the Blues, but how they’ve responded since getting to the Edmonton bubble. Since getting punched in the mouth in Game 1 of their qualifying series against the Minnesota Wild, the Canucks outscored the opposition 34-23 in the following nine games. Vancouver won the next three straight against Minnesota, then opened a 2-0 lead against St. Louis before the Blues battled back.
Yet over the course of the next 89:06 since falling behind 3-1 in Game 5, the Canucks outscored the Blues 9-2 and deserved every bit of that series win.
The Canucks are a team with young superstar power that could carry the league for the next decade. Top center Elias Pettersson has 13 points in 10 games in his first playoff outing, while Calder finalist Quinn Hughes is tied with forward J.T. Miller at a point-per-game pace. Vancouver captain Bo Horvat leads the Canucks with six goals.
“I think Vancouver [is] deeper and heavier [than Chicago],” DeBoer said. “Every round, you’re getting a team a little bit better, a little bit deeper ... than the team you just went through. We’ve got to be aware of that and expect that.”
But much like the Golden Knights, the Canucks have a red-hot goalie going for them that will be an unrestricted free agent following this season. Jacob Markstrom is 7-3 in the postseason; his .929 save percentage is second to only Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov’s .934. He’s been terrific for Vancouver and he’s been a valuable asset while Thatcher Demko waits in the wings.
“He was exceptional [against St. Louis],” DeBoer said. “He’s a great example of how long it takes goaltenders to develop and how quickly people can give up on guys. The fact that he’s persevered and turned himself into one of the best goaltenders in the world and how long it took him to do that, I give a lot of credit to him. I saw him as a 20-year-old coming in to pro hockey. He’s a guy we’re going to have to find a way to get some pucks past.”
While Vancouver has gotten key contributions at opportunistic times, the scoring starts and ends with Pettersson and Hughes. They’re dynamic and play the most valuable positions that they can take over a game at any point. Hughes is second among defensemen, only to Dallas Stars young phenom Miro Heiskanen, in scoring this postseason. If they get hot, and Markstrom can continue his stellar play in the crease, Vancouver has all the ability to steal a couple of games.
Vegas needs top six to do its thing
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Golden Knights will head to Game 1 with a healthy roster intact. The top line of Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Mark Stone combined for six points in the Game 5 clincher last Tuesday; only their second game together this postseason.
While those three continue to get back into a groove, the second line of Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny and Jonathan Marchessault will get an opportunity to showcase that offensive magic they had in Games 1 and 2 against Chicago. Smith had three goals in two games, Stastny had his first points of the playoffs in Game 2, and Marchessault had consecutive two-assist games.
Stastny missed Games 3 and 4 as “unfit to play” but that line returned in Game 5 to register 10 scoring chances and a 48.48 Corsi percentage (16-17).
The third line has shown it is formidable, while the fourth line may have found a connection with Chandler Stephenson centering the meat-grinder line. Vegas has been labeled the squad with the best depth of the remaining teams. One way to display that is having your top six take over a game or two.
“Honestly, they’re pretty deep,” Marchessault said. “We’re definitely going to have to get some traffic in front and put some pucks to the net and challenge [Markstrom]. We’ve got to play physical against their skill guys, and they have a lot of good players for us. It’s going to be a good challenge for us, but it’s nothing our guys can’t handle.”
Schedule (All games on NBCSN)
Game 1 - Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2 - Tuesday, 6:45 p.m.
Game 3 - Thursday, 6:45 p.m.
Game 4 - Saturday, 5 p.m.
*Game 5 - Monday, Aug. 31 - TBD
*Game 6 - Tuesday, Sept. 1 - TBD
*Game 7 - Thursday, Sept. 4 - TBD
Opponent’s blog: Nucks Misconduct