I pose the question asked in today’s preview: Do the round robin games matter?
If you ask the Vegas Golden Knights, they’ll say yes. They proved they mean that by the way they played the third period.
That third period shouldn’t have been a microcosm of Vegas’ 5-3 victory against the Dallas Stars in their round robin game at Rogers Place on Monday. The Golden Knights rallied behind a four-goal blitz in the final 20 minutes to overcome what was a lackluster 40 minutes.
Five different Golden Knights scored; Chandler Stephenson got the party started 1:04 into the game, a much different cry than his non-existent showing in the exhibition against Arizona last Thursday. Mark Stone, Nate Schmidt and William Carrier scored 4:59 apart to eradicate what put them in a 3-1 hole through two. Almost as if it never happened.
Robin Lehner made 25 saves in the victory, being the first Golden Knights goalie not named Marc-Andre Fleury to make a start in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Alas, it did. And the Golden Knights, by way of this comeback win, are tied with the Colorado Avalanche atop the West round robin standings. Vegas takes on the St. Louis Blues on Thursday, a game that has more meaning now than it did at about 4:30.
“We were flat,” Stone said. “For 40 minutes, we didn’t have our stuff. We didn’t have our game, we didn’t have our system in place, we just didn’t play well.”
Despite Stephenson’s opening tally, the Golden Knights couldn’t get much going beyond that. The Stars outshot the Golden Knights 8-7 through the first 20 minutes, and if not for a fortuitous bounce on Stephenson’s goal, the 95 percent even-keeled period that it was could’ve turned into 100.
The ice tilted in Dallas’ favor ridiculously in the second period. Dallas had six of the period’s first seven shots and seven of the first 10 before the Stars capitalized with Joe Pavelski tormenting the Golden Knights one more time. His centering pass went off a skate in front and redirected past Lehner for the tying goal.
Forty-two seconds later, the Stars took advantage on Nicolas Roy’s inability to get the puck out of the zone cost the Golden Knights. Stars defenseman Jamie Oleksiak came from the blue line and beat Lehner bar down to give Dallas a 2-1 lead.
But wait, there’s more. Just over four minutes later on the power play after Shea Theodore was called for hooking in the Vegas zone, Corey Perry redirected a shot from young phenom Miro Heiskanen in front of Lehner to give Dallas a two-goal lead. Such is momentum, all of it gone in the blink of an eye.
That’s when coach Peter DeBoer put the lines in a blender. William Karlsson was reunited with Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault; Stone was with Nick Cousins and Stephenson, while Tuch and Roy were with Stastny. The third line at least needed a change. Cousins, Roy and Tuch combined for a whopping 1-11 in Corsi For (8.33 percent), and were never seen from again.
“It wasn’t X’s and O’s. There wasn’t a magical system fix,” DeBoer said. “They were the hungrier team for 40 minutes.”
Stone added, “Shake it up a bit, give us a kick in the butt. Got a little bit complacent there. We had been playing some great hockey before the pause. I think we just got a little bit too relaxed.”
What about the final 20 minutes?
- Golden Knights had a 25-8 edge in Corsi For (75.76 percent).
- Golden Knights had a 16-6 edge in shots.
- Vegas had a 12-6 edge in scoring chances and 7-4 advantage in high-danger chances. Vegas had only three in the first 40 minutes.
All of that culminated in Stone’s goal at 9:46 of the third period, cutting the lead to 3-2. It takes the future captain firing a puck on net and somehow beating Ben Bishop blocker side, which even DeBoer attested is not an easy feat to do.
DeBoer said Cousins was the best forward for Vegas most of the night. He made the play to set up Stone for his goal; a touch pass after receiving the stretch feed from Zach Whitecloud, all while getting decked right at the blue line.
“He’s our leader,” DeBoer said of Stone. “Not many guys can beat Ben Bishop from that distance. It was a big-time goal at the right time for us. Kickstarted what you saw in the third period.”
Then came Schmidt’s tying goal less than two minutes later, all starting with a broken stick from Esa Lindell and turning into a rush the other way.
This game was already off-the-walls bonkers that there couldn’t necessarily be anything better than that. Maybe a between-the-legs goal from a fourth-line forward in a tie game could be the cherry on top to this weird game.
Well, would you look at that?
The goal was initially waived off due to goalie interference, as Carrier seemed to come in contract with Bishop’s paddle. You might not find a better angle than this, and I’m a horrible judge at deciding what counts and what doesn’t.
That being said, that was way too close to call.
“I liked the way we were playing [in the third]. I owed it to my team to challenge [the goal],” DeBoer said. “If we didn’t get it, I was confident we would kill the penalty. It was important to show belief in the group.”
The Golden Knights probably didn’t deserve to win this game. Much like discussed this morning, the Stars had been dominant in every category but the win column before the pause. For 40 minutes, Dallas was dominant once again, but yet again, the Stars couldn’t close. All it took was a four-goal blitz and an aggressive forecheck to finally get past Bishop.
That’s the kind of game they’ll need Thursday against an angry Blues team that knows it should’ve had a point on Sunday. It’s also a Blues team that the Golden Knights is capable of beating.
It’s also a Golden Knights team that could use Max Pacioretty, and might get him back.
It is on the horizon, after all.
“We’re a good hockey team,” said Stone. “We came here to try and win the Stanley Cup. It was a slow start, but that last 20 minutes, that’s the way we want to play.”