John Woods/The Canadian Press via AP
Saturday, May 12, 2018 | 9:26 p.m.
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — This wasn’t the start the Golden Knights were looking for. After all, they rarely trailed by three goals in the initial eight minutes of a game this season.
But that was what transpired in the first period of the Western Conference finals today against host Winnipeg, which also had its way physically with Vegas in a 4-2 Game 1 victory.
The Jets’ bruising big man Dustin Byfuglien scored 1:05 into the contest and led an avalanche of offense that proved too much for Vegas to overcome. He also lived up to his hard-hitting reputation by leaving rookie forward Alex Tuch with a laceration across his nose after a jarring open-ice hit in the third period.
Vegas never trailed in its previous two series to reach the conference finals. Now, they are in an unfamiliar spot — playing from behind.
But the players aren’t discouraged. In fact, they can’t wait to play again on Monday.
“We are going to see what kind of team we are,” Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “It’s definitely a must-win next game and I think as a group everybody needs to step up, not just one or two guys.”
The last time Vegas came off a long layoff, following their first-round sweep of the Los Angeles Kings, they pounded the San Jose Sharks 7-0 in the first game. This time around that wasn’t the case, as they ran face-first into a Jets team fresh off a momentous Game 7 win over Nashville.
“It wasn’t the start we wanted. They played two days ago so they were game-ready and we weren’t,” Marchessault said. “It was a good push but we knew they were going to come. It’s part of the game, and we faced some adversity in the first, but the second and third were better I thought.”
Winnipeg scored three goals in the first eight minutes, and the Golden Knights never recovered. But there is reason to believe they will bounce back.
“I felt in the second and third we were playing more of our style,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “I thought we were playing fast, getting pucks in and harder on the forecheck.”
The Golden Knights had more chances than the Jets after that initial rush to start the game — a scoring outburst largely fueled by the electric atmosphere created by the sell-out crowd that covers the stands in a white blanket.
Vegas had a 31-18 advantage in Corsi over the final two periods of the game. Corsi tracks all shot attempts, even those that go wide of the net or are blocked by a defender on the way to the net.
While the Golden Knights finished with only 21 shots on goal — which is tied for the fewest in franchise history — they created a lot more offense than that number suggests.
“There was an awful lot of offense there, that we got a stick on or they missed on,” Jets coach Paul Maurice said. “They are a very, very dangerous team. They don’t need a lot. You look at the score when it’s 4-1 and we had some exciting chances that didn’t go for us, but they also had a lot in that game.”
Winnipeg’s forwards did an outstanding job of sacrificing their body, racking up 22 blocked shots. While that effort should continue throughout the series, it’s likely more of those shots will get through to Connor Hellebuyck.
As the Corsi chart by Natural Stat Trick shows, Winnipeg was spectacular in the opening period, but as the game wore on, the Golden Knights got better.
“We knew their team speed is very intimidating, so we wanted to limit their time and space,” Winnipeg captain Blake Wheeler said. “That was an emphasis for us and I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Maurice knew the game was closer than the score reflected, and going forward the Jets will have to improve as Vegas does.
“They are a good hockey team and they’re going to get some of those, so it’s a matter of trying to limit them as much as we can,” he said. “I thought we did a reasonably good job of it, but we’ll have to be better at it next game. In the rush they have a lot of confidence and why wouldn’t they? They complete those cross-ice passes on the way up the ice and into the offensive zone.”
The Golden Knights have yet to lose two games in a row this postseason, and they badly need that streak to continue.
“There are no excuses,” Marchessault said. “Everybody has to be ready to play our best game of the playoffs, and we are going to show what kind of team we are.”