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Avalanche at Golden Knights Game 6 Preview: Vegas looks to finish off Colorado with fourth straight win

The Vegas Golden Knights have a chance to close out the best-of-seven series against the Colorado Avalanche in tonight’s Game 6 matchup at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights were the first team to pick up a road win in this series, and it was quite a memorable one.

Much like in the series, the Knights were able to overcome a 2-0 deficit in Game 5, and they eventually completed the comeback less than a minute into overtime thanks to a Mark Stone breakaway goal.

Marc-Andre Fleury made quite the unforced error by misjudging a shot and giving up a goal with 0.8 seconds remaining in the first period. From there, however, he had arguably his best performance in the series. He stopped 10 of 11 shots in the middle frame, keeping the Knights within two to start the third. Despite Colorado’s early surge, the Knights took over early in the third period.

Momentum is a fickle thing. The Avalanche had been absolutely dominant through 40 minutes, but an early turnover by Andre Burakovsky, which ended up in the net behind Philipp Grubauer after Alex Tuch batted it out of the air, definitely turned the tide.

The Avalanche turned the puck over several more times, including on an errant pass in the offensive zone roughly three minutes later. That, too, ended up in Colorado’s net.

Just like the series, the Avalanche’s 2-0 lead vanished.

Whether it was a mental shift for the Avalanche after playing so well and watching that lead disappear in the first four minutes of the frame or just the Golden Knights taking the crumbs they were given and running with them, the change was palpable.

That was the first time in this series that something like that happened.

The first four games were fairly one-sided, regardless of the final result of Game 2. Colorado thrashed the Knights in Game 1, and Vegas outplayed the Avalanche in the following three.

Tonight is almost a series of its own, but if the Knights continue to do what they’ve been doing, they have a very strong chance of moving on to the third round for the third time in four years.

Anything can happen in playoff hockey, and two out of five games have gone to extra time. However, tonight’s matchup likely will come down to a few factors: goaltending, depth production and discipline.

Here’s what to watch for tonight in Game 6.

Flower vs. ‘bauer

Unlike the first four games, the Golden Knights got game-changing goaltending when it mattered in Game 5. Of course, the Brandon Saad goal was, let’s face it, horrendous, but regular-season Fleury made an appearance in the middle frame, and it made all the difference.

The Knights won both home games despite not having Fleury at his best, but the rest of this series — whether it goes to six or seven games — will consist of elimination competition, which elevates every element of the game.

That’s why Fleury’s play will be so critical tonight.

Ideally, he won’t hand the Avalanche another freebie.

That goal didn’t end up costing the Knights, though it felt crushing at the time. Fortunately for Vegas, intermission followed immediately, allowing both teams — and Fleury — to reset. The Avalanche had an edge but didn’t necessarily change their approach, and if anything, the Knights came out inspired to come to their goaltender’s aid as he so often has come to theirs.

But when it mattered, Fleury was exceptional. The second period could have cost Vegas the game and perhaps the series. The Avalanche could have scored at least three goals in that middle frame; Fleury gave up one.

The one he gave up came at the end of a ridiculous series of shifts that featured relatively nonstop pressure by the Avalanche. The Knights had a few clears throughout, but the Avs had at least six excellent scoring chances in the span of roughly two minutes leading up to the eventual goal.

The Avs’ push, stretching between approximately 14:30 and 16:28, included the following sequences:

  • A Nathan MacKinnon one-timer from the slot got blocked by Alex Pietrangelo. Fleury stopped Ryan Graves’ follow-up attempt from in tight. Chandler Stephenson blocked Graves’ second chance.
  • Valeri Nichushkin was in alone and made a move that opened up the entire upper portion of the net, but he was unable to lift the puck above Fleury’s pad. Fleury then stopped J.T. Compher’s follow-up off the rebound.
  • A Nichushkin one-timer from the slot missed wide, but the Avalanche forced a turnover to keep Vegas pinned in its own end, ultimately setting up a weak point shot by Connor Timmins, who broke his stick. However, Alex Newhook then collected the puck, carried it behind the net and along the wall before finding Donskoi for the one-timer goal./

It was a tremendous stretch for the Avalanche, and it was hardly on Fleury that Donskoi’s well-placed one-timer found twine.

But he did let in a few questionable goals in Games 2-4, including the fanned shot by Saad that went five-hole (Game 2): the Carl Soderberg rebound goal scored off the Pierre-Edouard Bellemare shot that Fleury couldn’t handle (Game 3), the Saad rebound goal when the puck was lying in the crease (Game 4), etc.

He’ll need to clean that up against a desperate team, especially since Colorado has averaged just 23.3 shots per game over the last four.

Grubauer has finally shown signs of being human, though it took a while. Now that the Knights have tested him more and more, he has shown some cracks.

None of the goals in Game 5 were soft, but like Fleury, Grubauer gave up some questionable ones in the previous few games, many of which were out of character for the Vezina nominee.

In Game 3, Jonathan Marchessault scored from behind the net by banking the puck off Grubauer and in; the Knights ended up scoring another goal 45 seconds later, and Grubauer never got set before Max Pacioretty’s deflection bounced into the cage.

Grubauer’s shakiest performance came in Game 4, when the Knights scored five goals. Not all were on him, but the first of Marchessault’s three was certainly not Vezina material.

You can’t necessarily judge a goalie based on individual goals given up across different games. Context matters, and both teams have plenty of offensive firepower.

At the other end of the spectrum, a key save at a critical moment in a game can be a game-changer as well. Both tenders are capable of show-stopping saves, but sometimes even a standard stop can extend a wave of momentum and help carry a team to victory.

But on the whole, neither goalie can afford to make a facepalm-worthy mistake tonight, especially when every shot could be season-altering.

Dig deep

One of Colorado’s strengths is depth, though much of its offensive firepower comes from the star players (i.e., MacKinnon, Rantanen, Cale Makar). In fact, Makar leads the way with six points, while Rantanen has five and MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog each have four.

In Games 2-5, however, no one other than Saad and Rantanen has more than three points. Colorado’s top three defensemen (Makar, Devon Toews, Samuel Girard) all have two, while everyone else has one or zero, including MacKinnon and Landeskog.

But the Avalanche are getting contributions from throughout the lineup, as almost everyone on the team has found the scoresheet in that time, with Saad, Donskoi, Tyson Jost and Soderberg all lighting the lamp.

Saad has been particularly lethal, regardless of which line he’s skating on.

He has scored a goal in four out of five games in this series, and he’s often the player who gets things started for the Avalanche. His goal in Game 1 was the third of the night, but it came just 1:02 into the second period and gave Colorado a comfortable three-goal edge. He scored 3:39 into the first period of Game 2, scored 1:50 into the first period in Game 4 and then scored Colorado’s first goal in Game 5 (with 0.8 first-period seconds left on the clock).

He’s doing so despite pretty weak possession statistics. He has a goal share of 71.43 percent (five goals for, two against) at 5-on-5, but otherwise has a Corsi For percentage of 38 and has managed a 39.76 percent shot share, 34.89 percent expected goal share, 40.63 percent scoring chance share and a 29.17 percent high-danger Corsi share (with seven for and 17 against). His offensive zone start percentage is 22.73, so he’s truly creating chances for himself and taking advantage of his opportunities quite efficiently.

The Knights’ scoring, by contrast, has been relatively concentrated.

In fact, of Vegas’ 14 goals in the series, 11 of them have come directly off the sticks of top-six forwards, not including Alec Martinez’s power-play goal in Game 3, which was assisted by Pacioretty and Shea Theodore.

Patrick Brown scored a relatively insignificant goal late in Game 4 (with help from Grubauer, who brought the puck over the goal line with his pad), but otherwise Vegas had not had a truly consequential goal from the bottom six until the crucial Tuch goal in Game 5, which kick-started Vegas’ comeback.

The Knights need more of that, though. Even if the top two lines are red-hot, there’s only so much a group of players can accomplish in a six- or seven-game grind. But more importantly, depth scoring makes the Knights a much more dangerous commodity. If the Knights pose a persistent threat to score, it helps with matchups and allows Pete DeBoer to roll four lines more effectively.

The Knights have gotten much more reliable production from their top players, which hasn’t really been the case with the Avalanche (thanks primarily to the Stone line).

The Knights’ second line, which has been intact since Year 1, has exploded in this series, accounting for more than half of Vegas’ goals. Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith have a combined 16 points in five games. Stone and Pacioretty have combined for half that (eight), and Stephenson surprisingly has yet to record even an assist. Marchessault is as hot as anyone in the playoffs, and it’s significant that the Misfits line is finally showing up when it truly matters.

But playoff hockey doesn’t always come down to the star players, so everyone throughout the Vegas lineup has to be effective for 60 minutes.

Best behavior

The officiating has had an effect on this series.

Both teams excel on special teams, at least partly.

The Avalanche have the second-best power play in the postseason, operating at 39.3 percent (trailing only Tampa Bay). In this series, it drops to 31.3 percent, still excellent.

Colorado has had 16 opportunities on the man advantage through five games (11 not including Game 1). There have been calls the referees have not made, and every time that happens, it favors Vegas considerably.

As the series has gone on, fewer calls have been made. Again, this favors Vegas.

Another thing that favors Vegas is when Vegas doesn’t take stupid penalties. In Games 3-5, the Knights have taken just five penalties, which is great.

That can’t change tonight.

It’s unclear if DeBoer will elect to put Ryan Reaves back in the lineup. Reaves often inhibits Vegas’ efforts of staying out of the box. Either way, the Knights have to focus on staying disciplined.

Though the Knights had the best penalty kill in the NHL during the regular season (86.8 percent), it has dropped considerably to 74.1 percent in the playoffs. In the series, it is 68.8 percent, but taking Game 1 out of the equation, it lands at 72.7 percent.

That’s a far cry from 86.8, and it’s definitely the kind of factor that can change a game.

The best way to limit its relevance is for Vegas to stay out of the box. That will be absolutely essential for the Golden Knights tonight.

How to watch

Time: 6 p.m.


Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM