The Vegas Golden Knights lost four one-goal games in the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars. The only exception was Game 2, a 3-0 victory for the Knights, which was the team’s only win of the series. In the end, the aggregate goal total between the two teams was 9-8 in favor of Dallas, with the ninth being Denis Gurianov’s overtime series-clinching tally.
Such a narrow margin makes finding faults in this series like picking nits.
Vegas played well and dominated possession for most of the series but was unable to capitalize and get the job done consistently. Plus, the Golden Knights never figured out Dallas’ neutral-zone play; whenever they got a lead, Vegas seemed to get caved in by the Stars.
Though it was a tight series on the scoresheet, there were various factors that contributed to the demise of the Knights’ 2019-20 season.
Here are the three major faults in Vegas’ game that forced the Golden Knights’ premature exit.
Lack of offensive execution
The Golden Knights’ forwards scored six goals in five games in the Western Conference Final.
Even if four of five games were decided by one goal, it’s clear by the utter lack of production that offense became a major issue for Vegas in the series.
The offense starting drying up in the late stages of the second-round matchup against Vancouver, though those struggles largely were attributed to the outstanding play of Thatcher Demko. However, the Knights didn’t reset with the new series and were never able to get it back. That was especially true of the forwards.
It’s easy to look at Max Pacioretty, who, while making $7 million AAV, experienced an eight-game goal drought in the most critical stretch of the season. Reilly Smith scored the final Knights goal of the season, but before doing so he went 10 games without finding twine and had just three assists in that span.
The Knights have always been a team that relies on depth, so you also can look at Ryan Reaves (19 games), William Carrier (16), Nicolas Roy (17) and Nick Cousins (17), each with a goal drought in the high teens and Reaves and Cousins with zero goals in the postseason. Hell, even Jonathan Marchessault went 11 straight without lighting the lamp. That level of inefficiency and ineffectiveness is not sustainable.
But it wasn’t only the forwards who failed offensively.
Nate Schmidt recorded zero goals and just one assist in his last eight games. Neither Nick Holden nor Brayden McNabb scored once, and the two combined for just four points in 20 games. Zach Whitecloud had one point once the actual playoffs started.
That lack of execution can be blamed on a few things.
Vegas’ inability to get through Dallas’ clogged neutral-zone scheme is certainly one of them — Vegas had just eight rush attempts, while Dallas had 16.
Another contributing factor was the Knights’ unwillingness to shoot the puck high against Anton Khudobin, the 5-foot-11 Stars netminder.
One might think it was simply bad luck. After all, Vegas had a 4.42 shooting percentage and .981 PDO at 5-on-5 against Dallas.
But it wasn’t a matter of luck.
Not when Vegas’ expected-goals-per-shot rate was at its lowest in the playoffs (.072, down from .08 against Vancouver). Not when Vegas had just 8.13 expected goals at 5-on-5 compared to 16.89 against Vancouver and 13.39 against Chicago.
In Game 1, Vegas’ worst game of the postseason, the forwards created three high-danger chances (of a total five), and zero rebounds were created or even attempted. That’s definitely not a winning strategy, especially against Khudobin.
Offense was a problem in the third round for Vegas. But it wasn’t the only problem.
Dallas beat Vegas offensively, both in speed — Dallas’ 16 rush opportunities made for a rather poor look for Vegas’ neutral-zone forces — and in quality, as Dallas had .081 expected goals per shot compared to Vegas’ .072. That was the first time Vegas lost that category in the 2020 postseason.
Plus, Dallas even caught breaks that Vegas couldn’t. A 6.31 shooting percentage at 5-on-5 and 23.08 percent on the power play are tough beats for the Golden Knights. But those, again, are because of better quality. Vegas’ power play had 19.75 percent of its shot attempts from high-danger areas; Dallas had 23.08. Vegas had .133 expected goals per shot; Dallas had .167.
At 5-on-5, the Knights gave up as many high-danger goals as they scored, and they gave up more goals in general.
Part of that is on Robin Lehner, who slipped from a .917 save percentage in the playoffs to a .914 save percentage against Dallas. Two of his four starts were sub-.900 performances, and putting aside his shutout in Game 2, he gave up eight goals on 69 shots in Games 3-5 for a save percentage of .884.
That’s largely because of his play on the penalty kill, as he managed just a .750 save percentage and -.97 goals saved above expected.
In a series where there were four one-goal games, that could be the difference to Vegas still being alive.
But the defensemen needed to play better as well.
After a rough postseason, Schmidt allowed a team-high four goals against Dallas (two from high-danger areas). Every defenseman except Holden allowed at least a goal in this series.
But some were worse than others.
Shea Theodore and Alec Martinez allowed two goals each, but they were both from the high-danger area. They were the worst pairing statistically for Vegas, giving up the most high-danger chances and expected goals. Theodore trailed the Golden Knights with a team-worst 13.73 high-danger chances against per 60. He was second worst with 3.04 expected goals against per 60.
While Theodore was the Golden Knights’ most valuable player offensively, he could have been better defensively. He also led the team with 10 giveaways, eight at 5-on-5. Lehner just did a better job covering up for him and Martinez than for Schmidt, although Schmidt tended to commit more egregious errors and give up more challenging chances than Theodore and Martinez.
Having a referee with whom the Stars had a 6-0 record in the postseason officiate Game 5 probably didn’t help.
The refs missed a cross-check to Schmidt’s face from Alexander Radulov just prior to Dallas’ first goal. They also missed a delay-of-game penalty on Joe Pavelski from when he airmailed the puck out of the defensive zone earlier in the series, yet they refused to miss the one on Whitecloud in a sudden-death elimination scenario. (I’m just saying... because I’m allowed to even if the players and coaches won’t).
Whitecloud, by the way, was one of Vegas’ best defensemen against Dallas. He allowed the second-fewest high-danger chances per 60 with 6.95 and the second-fewest expected goals per 60 with 1.23. Only McNabb and Chandler Stephenson were better defensively in the series.
Vegas needed to be better in front of Lehner, and Lehner let in some soft goals. But ultimately, Vegas allowed just nine goals in five games, which is less than two per game. The defense can only be blamed for so much — at least defensively.
Pete DeBoer’s failure to make adjustments
The Golden Knights hired Pete DeBoer mid-way through what was expected to be the regular season (but what turned out to be near the end of the actual season) because they thought he could win them a Cup. After all, he took his last two teams to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year with those franchises. But he lost both times (with New Jersey in 2012 and with San Jose in 2016).
Now it’s pretty clear why.
DeBoer never made an adjustment to Dallas’ playing style, and after an awful Game 1 performance, when Vegas clearly didn’t know what to expect, he failed to get his team to rise to the occasion in more than one game. In the one game the team did win, the offense all came in one period. Other than that, the Knights gave up nearly every lead they had, none more costly than the two-goal lead in Game 5.
That’s on the coach.
The power play not scoring at the right times and not looking great throughout (let’s not forget the two off-looking opportunities in Game 5) is on the players but also very much on the coaching staff.
The inability to get through the neutral zone or generate better chances is on the coach. The lack of direction to shoot high on Khudobin, set up screens and look for tip opportunities is on the coach. The inability and unwillingness to make in-game adjustments to combat Dallas’ attack or to fix some of Vegas’ problems is on the coaching staff and on the coaching scheme.
Dallas’ ability to go for higher-quality chances in the offensive zone is also on DeBoer. Vegas never switched Schmidt off the first-line assignment even though it became clear he was having a rough go, and Dallas made Vegas pay for it.
Vegas could have (and should have) switched to Holden and Whitecloud because those two were the best throughout the postseason defensively (Whitecloud allowed 10 goals, seven from high-danger areas, while Holden allowed four, two of which were high-danger).
Reaves brought nothing to the series until Game 5 when he... hit people. Cousins never scored, Carrier hadn’t scored in a long time and neither had Roy. Yet those four continued to see ice time.
Vegas never made the choice to switch to a quicker and more skilled lineup to cut through Dallas’ neutral zone.
Perhaps that’s in part because of the roster Vegas brought to the bubble. No talented youngsters besides Peyton Krebs, who would have been making his professional debut, made it to Edmonton. Lucas Elvenes should have been in the bubble, and that’s partly on DeBoer (there’s nothing he could have done about Cody Glass).
Ultimately, DeBoer failed to do the one thing Vegas brought him in to do.
It’s hard to look at the coaching change from Gerard Gallant to DeBoer in the same light now. Especially when, in years after his first season, the deepest playoff push DeBoer has managed was last year’s run with San Jose to the Western Conference Final, and we all know how that happened.
If you include this year’s Sharks season, DeBoer’s teams have missed the playoffs more often than they’ve made them. That’s not a comforting thought.