The Vegas Golden Knights are at a crossroads: win and live to fight another day, or lose and go home empty-handed.
The Knights trail 3-2 in the best-of-seven series against the Montreal Canadiens following Vegas’ 4-1 loss Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena. It was one of this team’s most disappointing efforts, and it set up tonight’s elimination game at Bell Centre.
The Knights were thoroughly outplayed and outworked in Game 5; aside from a brief stretch in the third period, the Knights appeared flat, overwhelmed and unprepared in the critical contest.
This was particularly surprising considering how fortunate the Knights were to have evened up the series at 2-2 with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 4, a game in which Montreal was the far better team.
Mental errors and an inability to overcome the Canadiens’ defensive scheme plagued the Knights in Game 5.
Montreal deserves credit for its relentless, aggressive and consistent shutdown system, which has given the Knights fits.
That being said, the Knights have not made the necessary adjustments to said system, and they have run out of breathing room in this matchup.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Knights have to execute tonight in Game 6 if they want to preserve their journey to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Here’s what to watch for:
Clean it up
The Knights have to clean up their game significantly, both from a mental standpoint and a technical standpoint.
Several goals surrendered by Vegas in Game 5 were self-inflicted or avoidable.
For example, the Jesperi Kotkaniemi rebound goal could have been prevented; instead, a lackluster shift by Nick Holden left Kotkaniemi wide open in front of an empty net for the easy goal. Marc-Andre Fleury made an excellent initial save, but Holden got caught watching the play, giving the Canadiens the all-important first goal.
Additionally, the third goal (scored by Cole Caufield on the power play) came directly off an unnecessary and reckless turnover by Mark Stone.
While on the penalty kill, Stone, surrounded by Habs skaters, attempted to stick-handle along Montreal’s blue line rather than dump the puck and go for a change. As a result, Nick Suzuki stripped the puck in the neutral zone and set up the goal. Like Holden, Stone got caught watching instead of hustling back on the backcheck.
Those kinds of mistakes from veterans such as Holden and Stone were unexpected; the Knights will need to be laser-focused tonight.
The Knights also cannot afford to continue to be so casual with the puck, especially on either blue line. Doing so is a very risky gamble against a speedy and confident Canadiens team.
That’s especially true considering how indecisive the Knights have been with the puck, which is another factor that has contributed to Vegas’ failing offense. Holding on to the puck gives both the Canadiens and Price time to reset; Vegas’ hesitation has been the undoing of many promising shifts in the offensive zone, and the Knights can’t afford to waste any opportunities tonight.
But they can’t give Montreal any opportunities, either.
The Knights have to clean up their recent play with regard to discipline, which has been an issue in this series.
Vegas has been incredibly fortunate that the officials have let so many calls go. The Knights protested the non-call when Alec Martinez’s stick was knocked out of his hands the other night, but Jonathan Marchessault proceeded to slash the opponent multiple times; that kind of retaliatory play can’t be part of tonight’s effort.
The same is true of unnecessary penalties. Nicolas Roy got caught taking a very careless and unnecessary high-sticking penalty, and it was a turning point in the game when Montreal made it 3-0 on the ensuing man advantage.
Shea Theodore proceeded to take an undisciplined penalty due to growing frustration, though the Knights were able to kill it off.
But no matter how things play out tonight, the Knights can’t lose their cool and dig themselves a bigger hole.
All or nothing
The Knights need a 60-minute, leave-it-all-on-the-ice kind of performance tonight to save their season. That’s easier said than done, and it hasn’t happened so far this series.
Considering how well the Canadiens have played as a team, it’s unrealistic to expect the Knights to have a flawless game.
But there was no sense of urgency in Game 5, aside from a short-lived stretch surrounding the team’s lone goal by Max Pacioretty, which was too little too late.
The magnitude of the situation and the fact that time and options were running out didn’t seem to dawn on the Knights during the game.
Maintaining calm is a good thing, but the Knights have to play with desperation. They haven’t been a hungry hockey team over the last several games. Vegas needs to play like there’s no tomorrow, which shouldn’t be too difficult to imagine considering it’s true.
Pacioretty’s goal in Tuesday’s game was the first Vegas goal scored by a top-six forward in this series. He technically scored as part of the third line, but through five games, the Knights have just one goal from the top six.
There’s no getting around the fact that that’s a glaring issue, particularly since it’s the second year in a row in which Vegas’ offense has dried up in the playoffs.
Stone has yet to record a single point in this series. Not only that, but he committed a critical turnover in Game 5 and was a minus-two. His emotion, leadership and production have been lacking in this series.
Pacioretty had a strong game in Game 5 and has points in the last two games, but the Knights need their top players to finally come through. It’s now or never.
A huge question ahead of tonight’s game revolves around whether it’ll be Fleury or Robin Lehner in net. It could go either way, and it likely won’t be confirmed until closer to puck drop.
However, the Knights are not facing elimination because of their goaltending. Even if the Knights’ netminding hasn’t been perfect, that doesn’t mean the goalies are responsible for the lack of offense and the team’s inability to even generate threatening chances on a consistent basis.
At the other end of the rink is Carey Price.
There’s no denying Price is a great goaltender; he has made some huge saves for the Canadiens in this series, including a pad save on a Reilly Smith backdoor attempt in Game 5.
However, the Knights are not doing enough to test Price. He has given up some soft goals, including in Game 4 on home ice, and he shouldn’t be in the players’ minds the way Thatcher Demko was last season.
So far, it has been the Canadiens’ stifling play that has left the Knights reeling, not necessarily Price. It has been difficult for Vegas to even get through the neutral zone, let alone set up in the offensive zone, establish a cycle and generate offense.
But at the end of the day, Vegas has to score goals to win; otherwise, the season is over. In order to improve their chances of scoring, Vegas has to do three things to beat Price:
- Hit the net: The Knights have missed a ton of shots throughout the series, particularly in recent games. It’s understandable for them to want to try to pick corners, but all it does is help Montreal clear the zone.
- Take away his eyes: This has been an on-and-off strategy for Vegas, but it has to be constant. The Knights need to set screens and make life much more difficult for Price; if he sees a shot, he’ll most likely stop it.
- Force him to move laterally: While doing so, they also must elevate the puck. Price has the bottom of the net covered and has made several great saves by stretching across. That being said, there is room upstairs when he’s forced to go cross-crease, so the Knights have to start taking advantage of that opening.
Roy’s patience in Game 4 allowed him to do so; but prior to that goal, the Knights hadn’t generated a single high-danger chance at 5-on-5.
Montreal’s defense has been great, but there are adjustments that can be made to counter the 1-3-1 system; Pete DeBoer and the Knights have to make those changes. They have to play a smart and competitive game, and they have to execute and capitalize on their chances.
But most importantly, they have to want this win. To save the season, the desperation, desire and urgency must drive a team-wide Vegas effort in Game 6.
Who would you start tonight in Game 6?
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How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM