What exactly went wrong for Vegas in the Stanley Cup Final
After a great regular season and a terrific postseason run, how did everything come crashing down around the Golden Knights?
So, uh, the end of the season kind of sucked, eh? Being on the wrong end of the handshake line is not fun, especially after an amazing season like the Vegas Golden Knights had this year.
After a series like that, the natural inclination — at least for those obsessed with analyzing every bit of hockey presented to them — is to figure out what went wrong. How did the Golden Knights fall from a team that beat the Winnipeg Jets in five games to a team that lost to the Washington Capitals in the same number?
Let’s start with the net. Marc-Andre Fleury carried the Golden Knights through three rounds, posting four shutouts, and save percentages of .977 against the Los Angeles Kings, .935 against the San Jose Sharks, and .938 against the Jets. His goals against average in each of those series were also impressive: 0.65 against the Kings, 2.14 against the Sharks, and 2.02 against the Jets.
Then the Capitals happened. Here are his numbers against Washington: .853 save percentage, 4.10 goals against average, and more losses than he had the previous three rounds combined. It’s also worth noting that was against the lowest average number of shots he’s faced in the postseason. Against LA, he faced an average of 32.5 shots per game. The Sharks got 35.67, the Jets 32.2. The Capitals? 27.2.
Yes, the defense deserves blame. But when the defense is also allowing the fewest number of shots they’ve let up in a series, that blame can only go so far. Fleury kept getting beat, time and time again, and rarely came up with a crucial save.
A big part of that was the high-danger chances the Capitals got. At even-strength, the Capitals generated 49 high-danger opportunities. They converted on 11 of them. That’s a 22.4 percent success rate. The other teams: 3.70 percent success for the Kings, 7.58 percent for the Sharks, 4.69 percent for the Jets.
Again, that was on fewer chances. The Kings generated 6.75 high danger chances per game. San Jose got 11, Winnipeg 12.8, Washington 9.8. It’s beginning to feel like the defense was unfairly maligned at times.
For reference, here’s Jesse Granger’s piece on how the Capitals were able to figure out Fleury. To paraphrase: patience. The Capitals were able to wait out Fleury, who aggressively attacked, drawing himself out of position. That could very well be something he works on this offseason with Dave Prior. Hopefully there’s more goaltending magic left in both of them.
Yes, the defense did step up in some ways, allowing fewer chances and fewer high-danger opportunities per game than in the previous two rounds. But they were far from perfect. Defensive coverage was a problem all series, and the fact that the Capitals were able to wait out Fleury is a poor reflection on the defense.
There were also poor individual efforts in some games. Luca Sbisa had a woeful final period of Game 5, being largely responsible for two goals against. Shea Theodore had problems in Game 3. Brayden McNabb and Deryk Engelland couldn’t slow down the fast skaters Washington was throwing at them. Colin Miller took too many penalties.
The heat map also looked like this at even strength:
Too many shots from right in front of Fleury. Home plate was wide open for the Capitals, and the Golden Knights couldn’t shut them down consistently. No Golden Knights defenseman allowed fewer than three goals at even strength.
Then, there’s the penalty kill. Here’s the heat map:
Too many slot shots, too many chances from the faceoff circle. Alex Ovechkin was able to set up in his office and deliver, and the Golden Knights often ignored his existence at times, even in Game 5.
The penalty kill, which had been one of the biggest feathers in the Golden Knights’ cap in the first three rounds, disappeared against Capital punishment.
Let’s start with the power play. The Golden Knights got next to nothing from the man advantage, even against a Capitals penalty kill that was one of the worst in the postseason through three rounds.
The Knights received 14 power-play opportunities. They converted on just three of them, with two coming from defensemen. That’s a 21 percent success rate, which is fine except it flew in the face of a 31 percent success rate for the Capitals. When a team loses the special teams battle that badly, the series isn’t going to go well.
The Golden Knights did get chances from the slot, but not from the area they needed to get to. Braden Holtby’s left side was vulnerable throughout the playoffs, and the Golden Knights were dominant when shooting from that area. They simply didn’t do that enough on the power play. If they had, they may have converted more.
The Golden Knights didn’t get enough from the top-six. Besides Reilly Smith (who was really, profoundly excellent, scoring three goals, adding three primary assists, going even in the penalty category, and winning the personal turnover battle with six takeaways and just three giveaways), nobody looked good.
William Karlsson generated just six shots across all situations. He had just one combined in games four and five. It makes sense why multiple reporters asked him if he was hurt.
Jonathan Marchessault had the most shots of any Golden Knight player, but never found the net. Erik Haula came up empty, with just eight shots. Alex Tuch was 0-for-15. James Neal kept missing chances.
The best line in this series for the Golden Knights? The fourth. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare had the second-best shot share on the team, behind only Ryan Reaves. Nobody came close to Bellemare’s high-danger share at even strength, not even his most consistent linemates. When your best skater is your fourth-line center, again, the team has problems.
The middle-six consistently got caved in. Haula had the worst shot share of any Knights forward who played every game, with just a 45.90 CF%. David Perron was below him with a 45.45. Neal had a 47.62, Cody Eakin a 49.18. Haula had worse high-danger numbers (33.33%), as did Perron, Neal, and Eakin.
The Golden Knights just disappeared against what turned out to be a strong showing from Washington’s top-four defenders (Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, John Carlson and Michael Kempny).
The holes have been figured out. The Golden Knights needed to do more. When it mattered most, Vegas came up empty.