Golden Knights 4, Coyotes 1: Vegas looks solid in tune-up for round robin

Hockey is back. So are the Golden Knights.

It looked like hockey. It sounded like hockey. It was a hockey game that was played Thursday night, but it was far from perfect for the Vegas Golden Knights.

The scoreboard will read 4-1, a solid victory for the Golden Knights in their lone exhibition game against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday at Rogers Place. The mission will read ‘well done’ after not playing a game for nearly five months due to COVID-19.

There was plenty good to take away from Reilly Smith’s two-goal night and a job well done by the makeshift third line. Alex Tuch scored, and Nick Cousins had an empty-net goal and two assists. Someone check the archives to find the last time the third line got a pat on the back.

To ask hockey players to perform at the highest level after nearly five months off is the equivalent of asking the original cast of Hamilton to come back to Broadway with only one dress rehearsal.

The final product won’t look great, nor is it to be anywhere near finished. It won’t be a finished product following the round robin, starting Monday for the Golden Knights against the Dallas Stars. Thursday’s tilt was to wonder if the two weeks of training camp and scrimmaging actually paid off, as did the team practicing for all five weeks of Phase 2.

“I think just a lot of traffic, bringing the puck up through the neutral zone, I thought we were sloppy at the start. Just stuff like that, you’re not used to in practice,” Smith said on adjusting to the early portion. “It seemed like there was a lot of bodies running into each other, especially at the start of the game. I think we did a good job cleaning it up.”

Coach Peter DeBoer didn’t want to see a lot of special teams going into this game, but he liked what he saw Thursday. Smith was the special teams star at both ends; starting with the game’s opening goal at 8:42 of the first, forcing a turnover in the neutral zone and springing a two-on-one with William Karlsson.

The result is normally elementary when those two get in open space down a man.

Smith was the best player on the ice in the first period by a country mile. Moments after that goal and killing the Arizona penalty, he set up Paul Stastny at the doorstep for a potential goal, but the puck jumped right off Stastny’s stick.

Just a minute later on the power play, Smith scored his second at 16:23 of the period. The assists went to Tuch and Cousins, but a third assist should go to Alec Martinez.

In reality, that’s all the Golden Knights needed. They clamped down on Arizona for most of the night in terms of possession. Vegas had a collective Corsi For of 55.44 percent through two periods, compared to 44.01 for the Coyotes. The Golden Knights held Arizona to 11 shots through two periods, making life easy for Fleury against a team his comrades said would be a great test in terms of speed and conditioning.

“I thought our team looked good right from the start,” Fleury said. “Maybe from the start they brought it to us a bit, but it didn’t take too long for our guys to find their legs and we played solid. They do have a lot of speed on their team, but we matched it, I thought, no problem. We controlled the puck a lot and we created a lot offensively.”

In regards to Fleury’s analysis, Smith said a lot of the credit went to the fourth line. William Carrier, Ryan Reaves and Tomas Nosek drew the starting assignment like DeBoer has made tradition, and their physicality set the tone against Arizona’s top line of Taylor Hall, Christian Dvorak and Conor Garland. Numbers wise, the Hall line got what it wanted (64.29 Corsi), but that line had only two scoring chances and gave up two; both from the fourth line.

“Knowing we have all of our lines going, and I think we did tonight, makes it tough on teams,” Smith said. “I think Nosek’s line did a great job tonight to change momentum. In every game, other teams are going to get different momentum swings. They did a good job of shutting them down tonight, and we were able to build off that and build offense.”

Five-on-five was a different story. While the Golden Knights outshot the Coyotes 11-4 on the power play, Vegas had only four shots at even strength through 32 minutes of play. Arizona outshot Vegas 17-14 at even strength in the game.

One of those shots was the goal of the night from Tuch at 13:47 of the third period, moments after Hall got the Coyotes on the board.

It was also the lone even-strength goal of the game, because of course it was.

“I thought they were great,” DeBoer said. “I thought Tuchy was all over the ice, and I thought Nic Roy and Cous had great games, too.”

The Golden Knights’ success in this unusual playoff setting will come down to how the bottom six performs, primarily the third line. That group has been quiet the past two postseasons. Most of that is due to Tuch not having consistent linemates.

Cousins might not be on the third line every night, but it’s a gamechanger if that group plays like this nearly every night.

As a wise monkey once said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. And for the Golden Knights, solid is acceptable on this night.

“There’s always things. We’ll watch the tape tomorrow,” DeBoer said. “You’re never as bad as you think you are. I’m sure there’s areas we can clean up, but overall, considering the circumstances, I thought we came in and did a real good job of carrying over a really good camp into the exhibition game.”

Other notes

  • Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt left the game with 8:02 remaining in the third with what looked like a tweak in the leg. He didn’t return, but DeBoer said it was nothing to worry about; cramps for Vegas’ defenseman, and he should be fine.
  • Coyotes forward Nick Schmaltz exited the game with 4:28 left in the second period after taking a shot from Reaves moments after drawing a holding call on defenseman Zach Whitecloud./

I’m a horrible judge when it comes to what is and isn’t legal. That being said, don’t be shocked if a call comes from the Department of Player Safety in some fashion.

  • Smith and Fleury said the pumped-in crowd noise wasn’t that much of a factor in this game. The NHL has tried to make it as realistic of a game-like setting as possible, including the environment, and at first I thought it was due to the Coyotes’ broadcast team calling the game remotely from Gila River Arena. Alas, that wasn’t the case./

“If they did have it, I didn’t hear it,” Smith said.

“I heard some,” Fleury said. “But they weren’t very loud, not loud like the music.”

It’s an exhibition for everyone, including the game operation staff. Hopefully it’s a different setting when the qualifiers begin Saturday.