Stretching their way to a point

The Colin Miller to Reilly Smith link-up was a thing of beauty, and brought Vegas back into the game.

Let’s talk about the stretch pass.

No, not that one. At least not yet.

The stretch pass is a low-percentage tool that has the potential to spring a forward for a quality scoring chance. This pass typically runs from a team’s defensive zone through the opponent’s end of the neutral zone.

Despite the sheer amount of open ice in a hockey game, it is very difficult to find a gap in the defense, especially through the back half of the neutral zone.

Arik Parnass, one of hockey’s brilliant analytics minds (and current employee of Kroenke Sports, the organization that owns the Colorado Avalanche) noted that: “Stretch passes lead to the fewest average seconds in the offensive zone. They are the highest risk plays and strive for shot quality on the rush over zone time.”

High-risk, high-reward. For a fast-skating, fast-thinking team like the Golden Knights, the stretch pass appears the ideal option to pull out of the ol’ bag of tricks.

However, there is a downside. Dan Bylsma’s Pittsburgh Penguins come to mind as a team that employed the stretch pass to such an extent that it became predictable, and as such, easy to defend against. Look no further than their embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the 2012-13 Eastern Conference Finals, a series in which they managed just two goals. On a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and current Vegas winger James Neal, that simply should not happen.

Used sparingly however, it can be a serious weapon, and is about the NHL’s closest parallel to the Hail Mary pass in football.

Okay, now let’s talk about tonight’s stretch pass. Or rather, let’s take a look at it:

Vegas defenseman Colin Miller threads a perfect pass to a streaking Reilly Smith who ties the game at 2-2, a score that would persist at the end of regulation, in a game in which the Golden Knights did not have any business getting a point.

See No. 74 on the Carolina Hurricanes there? That’s Jaccob Slavin, a player who rarely finds himself out of position, and a key cog in the talented young Carolina blue line. By threading the pass to an in-stride Smith away from the reach of Slavin, the Knights forward was able to get initial positioning. He then fought off the stick of Brett Pesce and unleashed a snapshot that beat Ward.

“It was a good play all around,” said Miller. “Reilly did a good job, cutting and putting himself in between [the Carolina defensemen].”

Slavin and Pesce are not replacement-level defensemen. This is a pair of young rearguards who each were rewarded with sizable contract extensions this offseason at the age of 23 and 22, respectively.

Miller and Shea Theodore both said that head coach Gerard Gallant spoke in the first intermission about resetting the offense and working on the breakout. There are many ways to accomplish this, and the stretch pass is one option.

The Golden Knights have been employing this tool a bit more over the past several games, which begs the question: is this coincidence or a new team strategy?

“Not really, no,” said Smith. “It’s more just a part of team systems and team strategy. They try to hold the blue line pretty well, so sometimes you can catch them flat-footed.”

Miller agreed with Smith’s sentiment.

“Against that team, they play up so much, so if our forwards are able to stretch at the far blue line, we can get them to back off a little bit,” the defenseman said. “With teams that are more aggressive like that, it’s something we try to change a bit.”

Change for the sake of change holds little meaning, but change based on an accurate reading of an opponent’s positioning and tactics is the key to gaining the upper hand, and in this case, creating a game-changing goal.

A goal that made Gallant crack a rare smile on the bench. A goal that gave Vegas at least one point after a lackluster effort. A goal that is emblematic of a team that may not be blessed with the most talented roster, but has the know-how to exploit a situation when and where they see it.

That, if anything, is the key to success for your Vegas Golden Knights.