Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018 | 11 p.m.
The Golden Knights are the second-highest-scoring team in the NHL largely because of their successful transition offense.
Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena the New York Islanders were determined not to get beat by it, and it worked as they left Las Vegas with a 2-1 win, handing the Golden Knights only their third regulation loss at home.
“We just did a better job staying behind them and played a patient game,” Islanders captain John Tavares said. “We didn’t try to do too much offensively and didn’t allow them to get into any rhythm or create in transition.”
The Islanders have surrendered the most goals in the entire league this season, but Thursday they slouched back, played safe and didn’t allow the Golden Knights many odd-man rush opportunities.
It’s a strategy that has worked before against Vegas. The Dallas Stars implemented a similar game plan on Nov. 28 when they blanked the Golden Knights 3-0 at T-Mobile Arena. It was the only time Vegas has been shut out at home this season.
Tavares said entering the game the Islanders made a point of playing further back to hinder the Golden Knights’ potent transition offense.
“Once you kind of see it and you’re out there experiencing it you get a sense of what you need to do to stay on top of them, and not let pucks and bodies get behind you,” Tavares said. “We just made some adjustments. We were aware and did a better job in the second and third periods.”
Vegas did find some opportunities on the rush. The best example was a breakaway chance for Brendan Leipsic, who deked and fired a backhand shot but was robbed by Islanders goalie Jaroslav Halak with his glove.
Halak saved 38 shots on the night but most didn’t threaten scoring.
“I always thought he was a pretty good goalie and when he’s on, he’s capable of a performance like that,” Golden Knights forward David Perron said. “At the same time I didn’t feel like we had enough presence in front. We kind of scored our only goal that way, and I feel like if we had more of that we would have gotten more than one.”
The Golden Knights got on the board late in the third period when Perron took a wrist shot from the slot. The puck deflected off Erik Haula and past Halak to end the shutout.
“If there aren’t people in front of the net then that goal never happens,” Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “It’s a really easy save for Halak to make. So when there’s a person in front of the net it’s a different ballgame, and tonight on those 39 shots that we had, we were just not aggressive enough in front of the net.”
The Golden Knights have struggled to score with sustained offensive-zone pressure, largely due to the lack of a presence in front of the goaltender. Having a player in front of the crease not only has the opportunity to tip pucks past the goalie, but distorts his view and makes his job more difficult.
But it’s not an easy job. Opposing defensemen punish any forward who dares to drift into that territory.
“It sounded like we had a real good game with a 39 shots but I think a lot of those shots he saw from the blue line and we played the outside a little bit too much for my liking,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “You pay a price to get in front of the net and we just weren’t hungry enough tonight. I thought we played OK, but we weren’t hungry enough to score goals and it cost us at the end.”
Alex Tuch has been the Golden Knights’ only player to consistently park himself in front of the net this season. Haula has started filling the role and netted a goal Thursday night because of it.
“If we have a little bit more guys in front of the net I think that some of those pucks would have gone in,” Bellemare said.
Despite the loss, Vegas still holds a commanding 9-point lead in the Pacific Division. The Golden Knights have four days off for the all-star break (except James Neal and Marc-Andre Fleury, who will be playing in the all-star game) before heading on a grueling six-game road trip.
“(Tonight wasn’t) horrible, but it was not our way to play,” Bellemare said. “We just have to hit the reset button and come back even stronger.”