7 things we learned from Golden Knights' special-teams-driven Game 5 win over Oilers
Coming off an embarrassing 4-1 defeat at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers in Game 4, the Vegas Golden Knights were desperate to bounce back Friday night in a pivotal Game 5 matchup on home ice.
Things did not start out well, though, as the Golden Knights surrendered the first goal for the fifth time in the series. Once again, discipline played a role early for the Golden Knights, who gave up two power-play goals in the first period.
However, Jack Eichel scored 50 seconds after the first of those power-play strikes to make it 1-1 in the first four minutes of the period. It was the fourth time in the series that the Golden Knights scored within two minutes of an Oilers goal, with the other three instances taking place in Games 1 and 3 (both wins for the Golden Knights).
Edmonton scored again on the power play, giving the Oilers two power-play goals in the first 10 minutes of the game and a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.
For the first time in the series, that lead did not determine the winner of the game.
That's because Vegas scored three goals in 89 seconds in the second period.
The Golden Knights capitalized on an extended 5-on-3, evening up the contest with 5:55 remaining in the middle frame and then taking a 3-2 lead just 29 seconds later with their second power-play goal of the period. Vegas added a third goal a minute later, as Nicolas Hague's bomb from the point chased Stuart Skinner and made it a 4-2 game.
Keegan Kolesar threatened that lead when he dangerously and unnecessarily boarded Mattias Ekholm, giving the lethal Oilers power play a five-minute major.
Down by two, the Oilers were only able to score once on that major due to a massive defensive stand by the Golden Knights' penalty kill. The one goal the Golden Knights did surrender came after the official interfered with Vegas in the neutral zone.
However, the Golden Knights still had a one-goal lead, which they held on to for the rest of the third period.
It was an impressive team-wide effort, especially with Alex Pietrangelo serving his one-game suspension for his two-handed slash on Leon Draisaitl at the end of Game 4.
The thrilling Game 5 victory gave Vegas a 3-2 lead in the series; here are seven of the many things we learned from the game.
1. Believe it or not, discipline is really a thing, still
Discipline was a crucial factor for Vegas coming into the second-round matchup against Edmonton, and it has played a role in every game of this series.
It has been a problem in most games, and Game 5 was no exception. It didn't cost Vegas the game, but it could have.
Sometimes, calls are questionable, or players find themselves in situations where it's difficult to avoid committing an infraction. However, the Golden Knights have been taking unnecessary penalties, including stick penalties like slashing and tripping.
Vegas also has crossed the line twice in the last two games; first, Pietrangelo's inexcusable slash on Draisaitl that earned him a warranted one-game suspension, and then Kolesar's thoughtless decision to board Ekholm in the waning seconds of Vegas' biggest period of the season.
Even Eichel, who was the best Vegas skater in Game 5, retaliated against Vincent Desharnais in the third period to negate part of a double-minor. It was a one-goal game at the time.
That sort of play cannot happen, yet it seems to pop up game after game.
Pietrangelo, the veteran leader with a Stanley Cup ring who is supposed to be one of the stabilizing voices and influences on and off the ice, lost his cool in Game 4. His one-game suspension didn't prove to be a back-breaking situation for Vegas, but discipline remains an uncharacteristic-yet-prevalent issue for the Golden Knights.
In fact, Vegas is averaging 8.20 penalties per 60 minutes in the second round, which is the most among remaining teams. Edmonton is second at 7.60, but the Golden Knights were the least penalized team in the regular season. In fact, Vegas averaged 2.92 penalties per 60 minutes this year, which was the lowest in the league (the second-lowest was 3.19) and is the lowest average in franchise history.
The Golden Knights have not been able to remain in control. It's not complicated, though; it's just a matter of diligence, focus and commitment.
Vegas failed to demonstrate that in Game 5.
2. A Misfit, previously MIA, has been found
Reilly Smith had himself a game Friday night. His offensive involvement, or lack thereof, was an eyesore through the first nine games of the postseason, but he showed up at a critical moment in Game 5, scoring the go-ahead goal for Vegas on the power play in a three-goal second period.
The game started out poorly for him, as he took the first penalty of the contest, which resulted in Edmonton's first power-play goal. The penalty came just 70 seconds into the game and was a careless hooking call.
But Smith made up for it the rest of the way with a performance that was solid at both ends of the ice. He was particularly effective on the penalty kill during Edmonton's major, and he, William Karlsson and Mark Stone teamed up for an exceptional shift in the final minutes of the third period. The trio had the puck in the offensive zone for nearly two minutes, forcing the Oilers to defend and eating up precious time on the clock.
Also, Smith led the Golden Knights in individual expected goals (0.35), finished second (behind Hague, interestingly) in individual Corsi (5) and led all Vegas skaters with two individual high-danger chances.
It took a long while for Smith to show up this postseason, but he was a factor in Game 5 and will be an important piece if Vegas wishes to extend its postseason run.
3. Jack Eichel was born to play playoff hockey
Eichel is competing in the first postseason run of his career, and he is loving every minute of it.
He leads the Golden Knights with eight points in this series and had his second three-point game in five games the other night. He has 13 points in 10 career playoff games and has recorded multi-point efforts in all three of Vegas' wins against the Oilers.
But he hasn't merely produced; Eichel has been effective defensively, and he has made countless plays without the puck to help the Golden Knights throughout this series.
The significance of his goal early in the first period of Game 5 cannot be understated; the Golden Knights were off to another rough start, the Oilers had drawn an early penalty and Edmonton had cashed in on that power play.
But Eichel was there with the equalizer 50 seconds later, and it helped the Golden Knights remain in the game.
"This is his coming out party for the playoffs in Winnipeg and now he's up against McDavid and the Oilers in the second round, and he's trying to do his part every night," Bruce Cassidy said after Game 5.
"I'm impressed with his assertiveness on the ice. He's drawn penalties. He's taken a few, but usually they're working penalties. He wants to be a difference-maker. It's his first go-around in the playoffs and he wants to be a difference-maker. I think you're seeing a guy rise up to the occasion, and every game a little bit more. And you need that from your best players; if you're gonna win, that's just what's required."
4. The top line seems to have the answers
The Golden Knights have responded quickly to Edmonton goals in all three of their wins.
In their two losses – in Game 2 and Game 4 – the Golden Knights were unable to do this; instead, they gave up five and four unanswered goals, respectively. This allowed Edmonton to run away with the game in the first period in both cases.
But in all four instances in which the Golden Knights answered – all within two minutes of an Oilers goal – it has been the top line that has come through. It has been the top line that has been able to break up Edmonton's momentum surges.
Ivan Barbashev did it twice in Game 1, once in the first period and once in the third. He scored 40 seconds and 61 seconds after Draisaitl scored on the power play.
In Game 3, it was Jonathan Marchessault who stepped up, scoring his first goal 1:59 after the Oilers took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Warren Foegele.
In Game 5, it was Eichel who did the deed, scoring 50 seconds after McDavid gave the Oilers their fifth 1-0 lead of the series.
In all three games, the Golden Knights have gone on to defeat the Oilers; in two of those three wins, Vegas has bounced back enough to take a lead into the first intermission.
The top line has played a crucial role in each of Vegas' wins.
In the series, the trio of Eichel, Marchessault and Barbashev has managed a 55.88 percent Corsi share, outshot opponents 33-24 (57.89 percent), outscored opponents 5-1 and earned a 55.26 percent scoring chance share and a 55.56 percent high-danger Corsi share in 48:55.
They have combined for 17 points in the series and are responsible for eight goals, five of which have been scored as a line. Four of those five have been pivotal responses that have kept Vegas in the game and helped the Golden Knights go on to win.
"Next shift, next game, whatever the situation is, you've gotta be thinking ahead," Cassidy said. "Stay in the moment; you can't worry about what just happened."
The top line has been stellar in that regard.
5. The power play lives
The Golden Knights were 0-for-11 on the power play in Games 2-4 and started Game 5 with three straight unsuccessful power-play opportunities. However, the power play finally came through in the second period, and it changed the game and quite possibly the series.
Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said in an interview during Game 5 that he had no problem challenging Eichel's goal for goalie interference because his team was generating so much momentum from the penalty kill. In other words, Woodcroft had no problem tempting fate by awarding the Golden Knights a power play because the Golden Knights' power play was not viewed as a threat.
Before the second period of Game 5, it hadn't been.
However, it ended up changing everything.
Unlike in previous seasons, the Golden Knights' power play was generating legitimate chances, even during the 0-for-14 stretch. Vegas was unable to convert, but the power play was working without actually working; it was coming close but wasn't actually executing.
In Game 5, the captain took matters into his own hands and put an end to the drought.
Stone went hard to the net and shoved the puck under the pads of Stuart Skinner to even things up at 2-2 in the final six minutes of the second period.
The team responded with another power-play goal less than 30 seconds later. This time, it was Smith.
It was a major turn of events, and it helped the Golden Knights get back into the game. The Oilers had been playing well in the second period and, at times, seemed to be taking over. Cassidy was forced to reunite Stone, Eichel and Chandler Stephenson as a result. It only lasted a shift, but things were not clicking for Vegas.
However, when the opportunity presented itself, the Golden Knights' power play executed, and it was a monumental moment in this series, regardless of what happens moving forward.
The fact that the Golden Knights scored the three fastest playoff goals in franchise history in that moment says a lot about the backbone of this team. Adversity has reared its head throughout the season, but the Golden Knights find ways to get it done. Game 5 was no exception, and it was the power play that turned the tide.
"Whenever you get a 5-on-3, you really want to take advantage of it," Eichel said after the game. "I think after the first period we had some chances on the power play but we weren't able to capitalize. So it was big. Special teams are so important, so important in the playoffs. We needed to find a way to get one; it didn't matter, we needed to get one. And Stoney makes a great play, and we're able to get one on the 5-on-3 and then continue on the power play and then get another one. Those can be big momentum swings, and we were able to use it to our advantage."
"It was huge," Marchessault echoed. "Obviously, our first period was not the greatest for the power play, but we came back and we were able to get a big one at 5-on-3. When you get a 5-on-3, I think it's a must. ... Obviously those were huge goals in our game tonight, and it brings us a lot of confidence to get those goals. When you think about it, we win 4-3 and we have 2 out of 4 on the power play, so I think it's a positive for us for sure."
The Golden Knights may have given up one more power-play goal than they scored, but Vegas' man-advantage got the job done when it mattered most. It had been lagging for months, but it was huge in Game 5.
6. The PK can go 1-for-4 but still save the game
The five-minute major threatened to undo all of the momentum Vegas built in the second period. The Oilers had 4:37 with which to work at the start of the third, and Vegas held just a two-goal lead.
It was a hectic kill.
Early on, Zach Whitecloud – on the penalty kill in place of Pietrangelo – failed to clear the puck, but then Smith got a huge clear with 3:02 remaining. Brayden McNabb had a few big blocks, and Adin Hill made a save to get a whistle against Edmonton's second unit with 2:36 remaining. An errant pass by the Oilers led to another clear, and Edmonton skated back into the zone with 2:15 left on the power play. Eichel blocked a shot to get another clear, but then Vegas was interfered with in the neutral zone, leading to McDavid's goal off the rebound.
However, Smith got another big clear with 1:34 left, and the Oilers skated back into the zone with 1:23 remaining. Hill made a pair of key stops, including on Evan Bouchard from the point and then on Draisaitl on the rebound; Vegas then got another clear, leaving Edmonton with under a minute left on the major.
Smith got yet another clear with 37 seconds left, and Alec Martinez made a final block before Nicolas Roy cleared the zone to take care of the rest of it.
The Golden Knights escaped what could have been a disaster with just one goal against. It was a remarkable effort, and it helped the Golden Knights pull off the 4-3 win.
As Cassidy said after the game, the Golden Knights bent but didn't break.
"Even though they scored three on their power play, I know this is gonna sound really strange, but I thought we did a pretty good job on [the penalty kill] for the most part," he said.
"Once the first one went in, they really [bore] down, so that, to me, could have been a turning point in the game big time, and we got through it. Even though we lost the special teams battle three goals to two, I think in reality, in our minds, we won it. That's how we look at it."
Eichel, Hill and Marchessault also recognized the significance of the kill.
"I thought we did a good job limiting their chances," Eichel said. "We needed everyone, everyone needed to step up, and I thought we did that. Obviously, they got two early on the power play, but we liked our game in the third, and it started with the kill."
Hill said getting through the major with a lead was "the difference in the game. We give up two there and it's a tie game, and who knows what happens from there. So I mean, our guys did a great job baring down and making sure we got the clears when we needed to. "
Marchessault also said that giving up just one was still a success.
"We knew we could use that 5-minute penalty as a momentum swing for us if we killed it properly, and I think one goal out of five minutes for us, it's a win," he said.
When Kolesar took that penalty, all the wind in Vegas' sails could have evaporated. The unstoppable Oilers power play was about to get a chance to score an unlimited number of goals shortly after Vegas scored three goals in 89 seconds. It was a stunning development, but the Golden Knights did what they had to do, and it helped them hold on to the win and take a 3-2 series lead into Edmonton.
The Golden Knights may have finished the game 1-for-4 against the Oilers' man-advantage, but the third-period penalty kill still saved the game.
7. It's not a Vegas playoff run without a major
It seems like a foregone conclusion at this point, given Vegas' history, that the Golden Knights are destined to take five-minute majors and other severe penalties at inopportune times.
The most notable major penalty in the franchise's six-year history was Cody Eakin's in Game 7 against San Jose. It was an egregious call, one that led to multiple rule changes and an apology from the NHL. However, the damage was done, and Vegas' season ended prematurely as a result.
However, Vegas has survived other significant penalties in the postseason.
Ryan Reaves was involved in two incidents that led to suspensions, including in Game 7 against Vancouver in 2020 and Game 1 against Colorado in 2021.
An illegal check to the head of Canucks forward Tyler Motte set up a five-minute major in a critical Game 7 matchup; the Golden Knights' offense had completely dried up against Thatcher Demko, and the major threatened the Golden Knights' season. But Vegas shut out the Canucks, holding them to 14 shots and getting the game-winner from Theodore in the third period. Demko made 33 saves, while Robin Lehner only had to make 14. Vancouver went 0-for-4 on the power play in the contest. The check led to a one-game suspension for Reaves, who was ineligible to play at the start of Vegas' third-round matchup against Dallas.
The following season, Reaves earned himself another suspension. This was the most extensive offense of the bunch, as Reaves received a match penalty for intent to injure, got ejected from the game and also got two double-minors on the play, which led to a nine-minute power play for the Avalanche. It already was going to be a blowout loss for the Golden Knights, but after cross-checking goaltender Philipp Grubauer, Reaves shoved defenseman Ryan Graves to the ice and then kneed him in the face, resulting in a two-game suspension.
Though Kolesar's penalty arguably was the most threatening due to the dominance of Edmonton's power play, it simply wouldn't be a Vegas postseason run without a nail-biter like Game 5's five-minute major. Fortunately, however, Ekholm returned to the Oilers bench for the start of the third period and did not appear to be injured on the play.