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Golden Knights at Avalanche — Game 2 Preview: In search of redemption

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A tragic Game 1 brought reality back to the Golden Knights. Can they play better in Game 2?

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche - Game One
Sampo Ranta of the Colorado Avalanche skates against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game One of the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs
Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights lost by six goals to the Colorado Avalanche on Sunday, the worst goal differential of the season or postseason for the Golden Knights. Their second-worst goal differential also came against the Avalanche, a 5-1 loss back on Mar. 25.

The Golden Knights played really poorly in Game 1, yet there is plenty of room for improvement in Game 2 — at least, one would hope there is. Otherwise, this is going to be an incredibly short series and one that likely won’t be that fun for Knights fans.

The good news is that Vegas didn’t play as poorly as the score made it seem. They allowed just 1.26 expected goals against (generating 1.2 for) at 5-on-5. Vegas’s penalty kill also was much better against Colorado during the regular season than it was in Game 1, though that may have just been a result of how much time the Avalanche had with which to work. In the regular season, Vegas allowed just one goal to Colorado’s power play on 21 opportunities.

Vegas’s top six also proved capable of driving the puck, as the William Karlsson line had a 57.76 percent expected goal share and the Mark Stone line allowed just one shot against at 5-on-5. That’s going to be key against the Avalanche, who are the strongest puck possession team in the league.

With that said, the bottom six needs to be better. They were stuck in their own end for much of the game, and the third line of Mattias Janmark, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch generated just one shot at 5-on-5 while allowing five shots against, including a goal. If the Golden Knights have a noticeable weakness in a game, they can expect the Avs to exploit it — as proven on Sunday.

Ryan Reaves’s suspension for two games after his actions in Game 1 open up a roster spot for the Golden Knights, as does Janmark’s injury from the middle of the game. Keegan Kolesar likely steps into one of those roles; against the Avalanche, one of the most skilled teams in the league, one would likely hope that’s a permanent change. Cody Glass, who played in Game 6 against the Minnesota Wild, could step into the other vacancy, as he played very well in the last round, and the Henderson Silver Knights’ season ended on Saturday (it’s time for talented Black Aces y’all, give me some Jack Dugan). Dylan Sikura practiced with the team in Janmark’s spot.

The Avalanche have high-level skill up and down their lineup, with smaller defensemen who excel at getting the puck out of their end but who may struggle against a more aggressive forecheck. Colorado put talented rookies Alex Newhook and Sampo Ranta on their fourth line with former Golden Knight Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in Game 1. That fourth line was one of Colorado’s two best on Sunday, with a 66.67 percent shot share.

The bad news is that the Golden Knights didn’t test goaltender Philipp Grubauer all that much in Game 1, generating 1.64 expected goals across all strengths. In four minutes of power-play time, the Golden Knights had just one high-danger chance and 0.23 expected goals. If the man advantage plays the same way as it did against the Wild, that’s going to be a problem. This is going to be an offensive series, even if the Golden Knights make it as long as it should be, and the best counter for Colorado’s offense is more offense.

It may be time to reorganize the power play, getting another net-front presence in front of Grubauer on the first unit and keeping Shea Theodore as the quarterback on that unit — in just 1:40 on Sunday, Theodore was on ice for 0.21 expected goals and three of Vegas’s shots.

The Knights weren’t as bad as they looked in Game 1, but they still have to play much better hockey.

Hey, maybe don’t let Nathan MacKinnon just go fast towards the net again. There’s a thought.

Maybe stop leaving guys like Gabriel Landeskog open at the net front. There’s another.

Here’s what to watch for as Vegas seeks redemption in Game 2.

What to watch for

  • The Golden Knights were much better at limiting the Avalanche’s big four players — Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Landeskog and MacKinnon — in the regular season than they were in Game 1. Too much may be made of the fact Vegas limited those four to just four goals in those eight regular-season games, but more impressively, they allowed that foursome just 10 primary points. That’s a more repeatable feat (or was before Game 1), and those four account for much of Colorado’s offense. They combined for 12 points in Game 1, eight of them primary. Coming up with a counter for that will be crucial, especially to Makar, who had three assists, the second-highest expected goals among Colorado (0.8) and four shots. Slow down the stars and Colorado becomes a much better matchup. This means putting faster skaters up and down the lineup and playing with less physicality.
  • Robin Lehner had a .794 save percentage in Game 1, allowing 4.65 more goals than expected. While the rust from not playing since May 10 clearly showed, it was Lehner’s worst game of the season and the worst game of his playoff career. Marc-Andre Fleury, coming off five days of rest, has much better numbers against the Avalanche this season. Fleury has a .932 save percentage, has saved 4.61 goals above expected this season and has a better high-danger save percentage in the series than Grubauer (.906 to .847). Like in the series against Minnesota, Fleury has the potential to be the better goaltender in this matchup of Vezina-nominated goaltenders, and he will likely need to be the rest of the way. Fleury will draw back in for Game 2, and the Golden Knights need him.
  • Max Pacioretty made an impact in his first game back in the playoffs, scoring the game-winning and series-winning goal against the Wild; he also got Vegas’s lone primary assist in Game 1 against the Avalanche. Pacioretty led either side in points in the regular-season series with eight, including six goals (he had as many goals as Colorado’s leading scorer MacKinnon had points). Pacioretty will likely need to be Vegas’s best forward again in this series, and he’s one of the most consistent finishers Vegas has. Among defensemen, while Theodore had just three points in the eight games against Colorado in the regular season and Alec Martinez had four (including two goals), Theodore has the ability to be the best two-way defenseman for Vegas in this series and one of the best defensemen in a crowded pack between these two teams. He needs to live up to that and redeem himself from a round-one disappointment.

How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: NBCSN

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM