AP Photo/John Locher
Monday, June 14, 2021 | 10:23 p.m.
There isn’t a perfect hockey parallel to a basketball alley-oop jam, but what Shea Theodore did in the second period came pretty close.
Everyone in the building thought he was going to shoot, but instead he dished to Alec Martinez for a forceful dunk, which held up as the game-winning goal.
It was the exclamation point on a banner Game 1 for the Vegas defense: three of the four goals, six of the 12 points and 18 of the 20 shots came from the blue line, as the Golden Knights took down the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 in the Stanley Cup semifinals at T-Mobile Arena on Monday.
“Yeah, I was going to shoot it, but he was yelling at me pretty good,” Theodore said. “He was wide open too, so that definitely helps.”
Defenseman Nick Holden, who scored in the third period, said the active defense was part of the game plan. Defensemen scored six goals in the first 13 games of the postseason, though three of the top five assist leaders coming into the game played on the back end, and the defense’s 31 points led the NHL in the playoffs.
They were certainly active on Monday. Theodore scored on a slapper from the blue line in the first, but on his second goal, he drifted all the way to the slot between the hash marks before sending the puck over to Martinez, who himself was below the faceoff dot. Holden pinched in from the blue line on his goal, and scored from in close.
Five of the Vegas blue liners chipped in a point against Montreal and the one who didn’t, Alex Pietrangelo, had a game-high 13 shot attempts, seven on goal. As a unit, the Vegas defense outshot Montreal’s 18-0.
“We talked about making sure the ‘D’ were getting up in the play to make sure we had good gaps in case pucks turned over, but ended up being that we were able to jump up and get some pucks and obviously score some goals and make some plays,” Holden said. “It’s always big when you can get contributions from different places, and tonight was one of those nights.”
The defense was also strong in the part of the game their position is named after, at least for the final two periods. The Canadiens had a strong first period, getting to the scoring areas of the ice with relative ease. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was called upon often, making eight saves in the first 7:25 minutes of the game and 12 in the period.
After that, the skaters in front of him made his life easier. He faced just five shots in the second and four in the third before Montreal pulled goalie Carey Price for an extra attacker, thanks in part to 16 blocked shots. At that point Fleury was under siege until the final whistle, making eight saves in the final 4:20 to keep the game at 4-1.
“All night, all series, all season, these guys have been amazing, blocking a lot of shots and helping me out around the net for rebounds and clearing it away,” Fleury said. “It’s a big part of the game. I think this team shoots a lot of pucks to the net and has a lot of guys coming in for rebounds, so they’ve been great out there.”
The Golden Knights are massive favorites in the series, but the first period provided Montreal with a blueprint for how to pull the upset. The Canadiens lived in and around the Vegas crease, firing eight shots on net from within 15 feet. Fleury kept the game within striking distance and allowed the Golden Knights to get out of the period with a 1-0 lead before taking over the game in the final 40.
“I think it was a feeling-out process, with us coming off a real emotional series win, playing a couple games more than they obviously played, so I think all those things factored into the first period,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “Thankfully (Fleury) was our best player. He gave us a chance to get our legs and then I really liked our game in the second and third.”
Theodore put the Golden Knights on top with a slapshot through traffic in the first, but his highlight-reel play came in the second, on the nasty pass to Martinez for the goal. He finished with two points, his fourth multipoint game of the playoffs.
The goal and points also nudged him into elite territory as far as postseason performance. Since his postseason debut in 2018, Theodore has 12 goals and 45 points, both tops in the NHL among defensemen in that span, surpassing Tampa Bay star blue-liner Victor Hedman in both.
Theodore was the entire offense for large stretches of the playoffs last year, leading the team with 12 assists and 19 points and finishing second with seven goals. He had been relatively quiet this postseason with six points in 13 games, but came up big on Monday.
The Golden Knights’ defense was superb all season and was again in the Game 1 victory. And if Theodore starts to heat up, it’s going to be hard to slow Vegas down.
“Our defense contributing offensively has been part of our foundation all year,” DeBoer said. “We relied on those guys to chip in offensively for us, they’re a big part of our identity, and they did it tonight.”