Wednesday, June 16, 2021 | 10:20 p.m.
The Golden Knights cautioned everyone that falling behind the Montreal Canadiens was a recipe for a tough night. They got out of it unscathed in Game 1, but when the same thing happened Wednesday, the Canadiens pounced.
Vegas allowed two goals in the first period, falling behind by three goals at one point before Alex Pietrangelo scored twice to inject some life into the team. The offensive push came too late, as the Golden Knights fell 3-2 at T-Mobile Arena, evening the series at a game apiece heading into Game 3 in Montreal on Friday.
“For whatever reason, our starts in the playoffs haven’t been good enough,” captain Mark Stone said. “We’ve been burned before and we got burned again tonight. You can’t go down 2-0 and expect to win the game. The last two periods I thought we played pretty well, but chasing the game is not an easy task against anybody, but these guys play a good team game when they get the lead, so we’ve got to do a better job with our starts.”
The Canadiens scored twice in the first, 6:12 into it and again with 3:30 to go, but it was the lack of offense that hurt Vegas. The Golden Knights mustered just four shots on goal in the frame and one high-danger scoring chance, according to stats site Natural Stat Trick. Giving up goals doesn’t typically faze the Golden Knights — they trailed in every game of the Avalanche series — but when almost all the period is in their zone, it’s hard to feel good about a comeback.
But the second was encouraging.
They generated two grade-A chances in the first few minutes: a Max Pacioretty breakaway that hit the post and an Alec Martinez back-door play that needed a terrific save from Carey Price to stay out of the net.
After that, though, the Canadiens did what Vegas warned about once they took the lead. Montreal deliberately took its foot off the gas and focused on suppressing Vegas’ offense. The Canadiens fired just four shots on goal in the second, but frustrated the Golden Knights’ zone entries and forced Vegas too often to look for the home-run pass that most often came up empty.
“They’re blocking shots and take away the middle of the ice, especially in their defensive zone,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s just a matter of us finding holes there and taking a look at how we can find a way to expose that. I thought we got into the ‘O’ zone; it’s just a matter of trying to find ways to score.”
Once Paul Byron broke free after a traffic jam at the Vegas blue line and put the Canadiens up 3-0, it was Pietrangelo who kept the Golden Knights in it with a long wrister from the point that wound its way through traffic. He also brought the game some intrigue in the final minutes when he connected again with 5:14 to go, the first multigoal playoff game of his career.
The Golden Knights were good in the third before Pietrangelo’s goal to make it 3-2, but ramped it up when they were within one. They fired seven shots in the final five minutes, making Price come up with big saves to beat them until the clock hit triple zeroes.
Slow starts are a familiar refrain in Golden Knights’ losses. They’ve conceded the first goal in 10 of the 15 games this postseason, and in all but one of their losses. They have a minus-7 goal differential in the first period, and are plus-19 in the second and third combined.
“You can’t fall behind that much that early,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “It’s not even one goal. When you get down two, it's just really hard to come back. We’ve done it before, we did it in the Colorado series, but you’re playing with fire when you do that, and we got burned tonight.”
The shot quantity was there, with a 31-23 edge in shots on goal as well as a 69-49 lead in shot attempts, but the quality wasn’t, drawing even 24-24 in scoring chances and trailing 15-9 in high-danger chances.
When teams need an offensive spark, they’ll often turn to their power play, but that’s an area that’s let the Golden Knights down so far this series, and the postseason in general. They went 0-for-2 with just two shots on Wednesday, dropping to 4-for-34 in the postseason.
That 11.8% success rate is second-worst among the 16 playoff teams, better only than Nashville, which lost in the first round. The next-worst semifinalist is Montreal, which has connected 20% of the time (7-for-35).
“Tonight’s a night that you really needed one from that unit, and we’ve got to keep working on it,” DeBoer said.
It comes down to the starts. The Golden Knights played similarly in Games 1 and 2, but Montreal left the first period with the lead and Vegas couldn’t claw all the way back. The Canadiens are 9-1 when they score first this postseason, and that’s not an accident. They have a good goalie and strong defense, so when they can focus on defending a lead and not pressing for offense, they can be dangerous.
A strong start and an early lead are the best things the Canadiens can do to make this a long series. It worked for them Wednesday, and it’s up to the Golden Knights to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s been a tough conversation for a little while. Last series, too,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s something we’ve got to continue to talk about and fix. Not good enough in the beginning, not good enough in the first period. You can see when we get to our game what we can do but not good enough from the start.”