Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP
Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020 | 2 a.m.
Hockey players love to talk about “playing their game.” If they come out and play their game, they’re going to win. If they lose, it’s because they didn’t play their game.
The Golden Knights played their game of physicality, speed and puck possession Tuesday against the Dallas Stars in a 3-0 win to even the best-of-seven game Western Conference Final at one game apiece. But in Game 1, it was the Stars who played their game of stifling defense.
Game 3 is 5 p.m. tonight.
“You get to the final four teams, there’s so thin a margin between teams and winning that it’s whoever can impose their game on the other team for the longest, and a lot of the games are similar,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “If you asked every coach, I think it would be pretty similar. We’re hopping over the boards, we’re tilting the ice in our favor, we’re wearing the other team out.”
There are plenty of similarities between the Golden Knights and Stars, but the differences are what will set them apart in the next three to five games.
The Golden Knights play a game based on puck possession. They were one of the leaders in those metrics in the regular season and carried it into the playoffs. They keep the puck in the attacking zone and don’t allow many high-danger chances on their goalie.
During the regular season, the Golden Knights allowed the second-fewest shots on goal, third-fewest shot attempts and third-fewest scoring chances. At the same time, they led the league in scoring chances per game and were second in both shot attempts and shots on goal per game.
They’re also a physical, forechecking team that creates chaos for teams trying to break out of their own zone. It forces teams to flip the puck out instead of controlling their exits, at which point the Golden Knights are happy to fight other teams off the puck and send it back where it came from.
To show their physicality, they were fourth in the NHL in hits per game. To show their skill, they led the league in takeaways.
That was on display in Game 2, where the Golden Knights controlled possession, generated a great majority of the high-danger scoring chances, and set a postseason high in the hits column.
“They obviously smacked us in the face there the first period of that first game and we were back on our heels, so we didn’t show our best,” Vegas forward Max Pacioretty said. “We feel that when we’re playing the right way, when we’re skating, when we’re moving pucks up quick rather than take our time and regroup, we want to play a fast game. That’s kind of how we visualize ourselves having success: playing well in our own end and playing fast.”
Dallas, meanwhile, thrives in the exact opposite style. While the Stars have had plenty of high-scoring games this postseason, they are a defense-first team that wants to score early and play with a lead, choking away opposing chances and containing the opposing speed.
The Stars also rely on their goalie more than the Golden Knights do.
Remember in 2017 when every goalie was hurt and Maxime Lagace and Oscar Dansk were winning games? That’s a product in large part because of the system Vegas plays that makes life easier for the goalie. Dallas has two stud goalies, which helps cover any defensive deficiencies.
During the regular season at 5-on-5, the Stars were in the middle of the pack for most shooting metrics against. They 18th in fewest shot attempts allowed, 12th in shots on goal allowed, 13th in scoring chances allowed and 12th in high-danger chances allowed. But they allowed the second-fewest goals in the league and had the second-best save percentage.
That’s Ben Bishop, the Vezina runner-up in 2019 and Anton Khudobin, this season’s leader in save percentage (.930) in action. Even with Bishop hurt, Khudobin has not missed a beat this postseason with a .912 save percentage and a shutout of the Golden Knights in Game 1.
The goalies don’t dictate the game flow though. The skaters on Dallas are heavy players — they lead the league in hits this postseason while Vegas is second — and have skill up and down their lineup that can score. Fourth-liner Joel Kiviranta had a hat trick last round and linemate Denis Gurianov is tied for the lead in goals.
In many ways, even if the regular season didn’t bear it out, the teams are quite alike during the playoffs. They’ve each played their game to near-perfection, which is why the series is tied. If Game 3 is a wide-open game with plenty of chances at both ends, it probably favors Vegas. If it’s more a slog with few chances, Dallas might have the edge.
“Two good teams with a lot of depth, good goaltending and some great players on the back end,” Stars captain Jamie Benn said. “This whole series will be a chess match and we’re just looking forward to (tonight).”
Series: Tied 1-1
TV: NBC Sports Network (DirecTV 220, Cox 38, CenturyLink 640)
Radio: Fox Sports 1340 AM and 98.9 FM
Betting line: Golden Knights minus-170, Stars plus-150; over/under: 5.5 (plus-110, minus-130)
Golden Knights (12-5, Western Conference No. 1 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Vancouver in second round, 4-3
Coach: Peter DeBoer (first season)
Points leaders: Shea Theodore (17)
Goals leaders: Alex Tuch (8)
Assists leaders: Shea Theodore (11)
Expected goalie: Robin Lehner (1.84 GAA, .924 save percentage)
Stars (10-8, Western Conference No. 3 seed)
Previous round: Defeated Colorado in second round, 4-3
Coach: Rick Bowness (first season)
Points leaders: Miro Heiskanen (21)
Goals leader: Denis Gurianov, Joe Pavelski (8)
Assists leaders: Miro Heiskanen (16)
Expected goalie: Anton Khudobin (2.82 GAA, .912 save percentage)
Golden Knights projected lineup
Jonathan Marchessault—William Karlsson—Reilly Smith
Alex Tuch—Chandler Stephenson—Mark Stone
Max Pacioretty—Paul Stastny—Nicolas Roy
William Carrier—Tomas Nosek—Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb—Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez—Shea Theodore
Nick Holden—Zach Whitecloud
Robin Lehner, Marc-Andre Fleury