Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press via AP)
Tuesday, April 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
The Golden Knights and Kings split the four meetings during the regular season. Vegas claimed the first two games; Los Angeles answered with back-to-back wins of its own.
With the teams meeting this week in the playoffs, the question remains: What did the Golden Knights do differently in the first two meetings, where they clearly looked like the better team, and can they replicate it in the postseason?
The answer lies in the style of play.
The Golden Knights rose to the top of the NHL, eventually running away with the Pacific Division crown, by playing fast, skilled hockey and scoring in transition. The Kings are one of the most physical teams in the NHL with 2,115 hits this season and have made a living muscling teams into submission.
Many hockey followers will proclaim how the style of play is different in the playoffs and that the more physical team often wins. That’s likely not the case for Vegas, which, of course, is playing in its first-ever series. If the Golden Knights are to survive this seven-game series, they need to embrace the style that has gotten them here, not try to beat the Kings at their own game.
“I think we are a fast team, a smart team, and we retrieve pucks,” defenseman Luca Sbisa said. “If there’s an opportunity you have to finish your hit (then do it), but we beat teams with our speed. You can’t get dragged into that because that’s not us.”
In the first two meetings with the Kings, Vegas played its game and dominated play. The Golden Knights pummeled the Kings with 79 shots on goal in the first two meetings while allowing only 57.
In the two losses, the Golden Knights got away from their game, falling into the trap of a physical battle.
“In our last game against them here we tried to be physical and push them around, and I think we woke them up more than anything,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “I don’t think we should do that. We’ve had success by playing our game.”
Vegas fell to the Kings 3-2 in overtime in Los Angeles on Feb. 26, then 4-1 at T-Mobile Arena the following night. In the Golden Knights’ two wins there were an average of 53 hits by both teams combined. In the losses, that number skyrocketed to an average of 69 combined hits per game.
And while the Golden Knights can hold their own — Brayden McNabb is 12th in the NHL with 225 hits this season — they aren’t as good at that style of play as the Kings. Los Angeles has nine players with more than 100 hits this season while Vegas has only five.
In the playoffs referees generally allow more physical play, but the Golden Knights have to resist and stick to their strategy. They averaged 3.3 goals per game this year, and the top line of Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith are the highest-scoring line in the NHL.
“We know they are a big, physical, hard team and they try to wear you down that way,” Sbisa said. “They might want to do that, and have us do it too, but we have to stay disciplined, stay focused and do what we do well.”
A common misconception is that a lack of physicality means a lack of defense, which is far from the case with the Golden Knights. While they may not have as strong of a defense as the Kings (who rank No. 1 in the league allowing only 2.5 goals per game), Vegas has a suffocating forecheck that could be particularly effective against Los Angeles.
“It’s about playing fast,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “When you play fast and you forecheck well you’re going to get turnovers.”
The Golden Knights have 855 takeaways this season. To put into perspective how impressive that number is, compare it to 396 by the Kings. Anze Kopitar leads Los Angeles with 54 takeaways this season, but there are six players on the Golden Knights with at least that many takeaways led by Karlsson with 78.
“It’s a game of mistakes and you have to force them to turn over the puck,” Gallant said. “If you give good players time to make plays they’re going to make them. If you give any player very little time then you’re going to get turnovers.”
The Kings were also well below average in holding onto the puck this season, ranking 23rd with 883 giveaways. If the Golden Knights can pressure them into turning the puck over and capitalize in transition they will win series.
Not only do turnovers lead to scoring chances the other way, but they can be demoralizing for a team.
“The guy that makes the turnover is not going to be happy about it, so he either rises above it or he crumbles,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “If you’re lucky he crumbles and you have him for the rest of the game.”
The Golden Knights’ relentless pressure combined with 18,000 roaring fans should create a nightmarish environment for the Kings for the first two games.
“Turnovers can create a storm of bad things happening for them,” Bellemare said. “The guys on the bench are pumped because you create a turnover. The momentum changes and the aggressivity level just rises for the next line coming up. It creates so much more than just the one play on the ice. I think it is a momentum changer.”