The Golden Knights learned one important lesson from Sunday night: The Dallas Stars are not the Vancouver Canucks or Chicago Blackhawks.
Dallas will match Vegas in the physicality department and play sound defense along the way. It’s no secret why the Stars were the second best defense during the regular season.
All the Stars needed was their first shot of the game to beat Marc-Andre Fleury, and John Klingberg’s goal 2:36 in proved to be the difference with Dallas winning 1-0 in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final at Rogers Place on Sunday.
“They were exactly what we expected them to be,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “They play a hard, heavy game. They make you work for your offense, and if you’re not willing to work for offense and support offensively, they’re not going to hand it to you. That was the case tonight.”
Both teams entered the West Final after grueling Game Sevens, whilst trying to avoid blowing a 3-1 series lead. It took the Stars overtime on Friday to knock out the Colorado Avalanche, while the Golden Knights needed one goal from Shea Theodore 54 minutes in to win and advance against Vancouver.
But the Golden Knights’ offensive woes continued into Sunday. After scoring two goals in a span of 173:52 between Games 5-7, the Golden Knights have only one 5-on-5 goal in the last 220 minutes.
This was an offense that averaged 3.3 goals in their previous nine games.
Fleury made 24 saves in his first start since Aug. 30 and fourth overall this postseason (3-1). Outside of allowing the goal from Klingberg, Fleury stopped the next 24 shots he saw. Dallas peppered Fleury with 23 through the first two periods while having seven high-danger chances, compared to Vegas’ four.
“The biggest change was all the traffic they had in front of the net,” Fleury said comparing the Stars to Chicago and Vancouver. “They threw a lot of pucks from different angles, and everyone’s trying to screen me or tip pucks and get rebounds.”
Had it not been for Vegas’ surge in the third period, the shot discrepancy could’ve been worse. Dallas outshot Vegas 35-19 through two periods and held Vegas to four shots on goal in the second.
The Golden Knights went through a 9:17 stretch — from their last shot of the first period to their first of the second period — without a shot on goal; until a Max Pacioretty wrist shot from the high slot went right to Khudobin’s chest.
“You’ve got to work to get inside and get puck battles,” DeBoer said. “They’re not going to hand you offense. You’ve got to be willing to compete for pucks. We knew that. We now know what we’re dealing with and it’s on us to respond to that.”
The bulk of Khudobin’s saves ended up in his chest. Vegas’ most dangerous chances were in the first period when Nick Cousins shot a rebound wide in front of the Dallas net. Nate Schmidt also had a chance from the point in the second that caught Khudobin in the shoulder.
Other than that, it was an easy night for Khudobin and the Dallas defense. The Golden Knights looked out of sorts and far and away from the team that dominated offensive zone time in the Vancouver series.
“It took us a while to get our legs going,” said Schmidt, who led Vegas with six shots on goal. “We didn’t come out to play from the start of the game for the first 35 minutes of the game. We were back on our toes and they were all over us.”
Mark Stone had no shots on goal for the second time in as many nights. William Karlsson was held to one shot.
The Golden Knights were without enforcer Ryan Reaves as he served a one-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of Canucks forward Tyler Motte on Friday. Cousins took his place at fourth-line right wing while Tomas Nosek. That line allowed eight shot attempts while only generating three.
Reaves won’t be the difference maker offensively, but Vegas did miss his physicality while Dallas matched them hit-for-hit.
“For sure we missed him. He’s a big piece of our identity, for sure,” DeBoer said. “It’ll be nice to have him back next game, but not a reason we lost.”
Game 2 is on Tuesday, but history is on the Golden Knights’ side. They’ve never trailed a series 2-0 in their history and the last time they lost Game 1 of the conference final, they reeled off four in a row to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Another performance like that, though, and that won’t last. Vegas has a lot of questions to answer between now and Tuesday.
“You get what you deserve in this league on a lot of nights,” DeBoer said. “We just didn’t put in enough work in order to earn a win.”