For roughly 40 minutes in Game 1 against the Dallas Stars, watching the Vegas Golden Knights was like watching a Las Vegas show when the understudy fills in for the headliner. From the skating to the hitting to the passion, something was just off from the norm.
“It just took us too long to get into the game. Took us to too long to get that energy, that fire, that bravado that you need to play in these types of games,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt after the Knights’ 1-0 loss to the Stars on Sunday night in Edmonton, Alberta, to open the Western Conference finals. “It’s the final four. It’s anybody’s ballgame. You have to be able to be on your toes when they drop the puck.”
This was the fourth time in 16 playoff games the Knights had scored fewer than two goals. In the previous three games, it was because the opposing goaltender stopped over 40 shots on goal. In Game 1, Stars goalie Anton Khudobin was solid in making 25 saves, but he wasn’t really tested until the third period. Vegas managed only 12 shots on goal in the first two frames.
“We got what we deserved. We didn’t play hard enough for long enough tonight,” coach Peter DeBoer said. “They make you work for your offensive. If you’re not willing to work for that offense, they’re not going to hand it to you. That was the case tonight.”
But the coach noted that the Knights’ opponent in the conference finals is a cut above the Chicago Blackhawks and Vancouver Canucks, whom Vegas eliminated this postseason, when it comes to team defense. While the Stars had been notable for their offense in the playoffs with 3.31 goals per game, they qualified for the playoffs as the NHL’s second-best defensive team, allowing just 2.52 goals per game on average.
Their ability to jam the neutral zone to slow down the Knights forwards, and support their goaltender, made a difference.
“This is going to be a different series,” DeBoer said. “We haven’t played the best defensive team, or one of the top two best defensive teams in the league, yet. We’re going to have to get our head around that and find a way to create offensive. It’s not going to look or feel like the Chicago series or the Vancouver series.”
John Klingberg scored the only goal of the game at 2:36 of the first period. It came after a Khudobin save at the other end, as he snapped the puck past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury after a blocked shot by Vegas defender Brayden McNabb.
Fleury was a surprise starter for the Knights after goalie Robin Lehner started both ends of back-to-back Games 6 and 7 for Vegas against the Vancouver Canucks. DeBoer said he felt Fleury’s “freshness” and his solid results against Dallas made this a “fairly easy” call to start him in Game 1.
“That game is a lot more out of reach if it’s not for Flower in the first two periods. It’s the truth. We didn’t play well,” Schmidt said. “It took us a while to get our legs going. We didn’t come out to play for the start of the game. For the first 35 minutes of the game, we were back on our toes and they were all over us. There weren’t a lot of plays to be made for us if we weren’t out there supporting each other and getting our feet moving.”
The Stars were also a more physical team than the Golden Knights’ first two opponents. Vegas was without enforcer Ryan Reaves, who was suspended for Game 1 after an illegal check to the head of Vancouver’s Tyler Motte in Game 7 of the semifinals.
“For sure we miss him. He’s a piece of our identity, for sure,” DeBoer said. “But it was someone else’s opportunity, and this is all about interchangeable pieces. It’ll be nice to have him back next game, but not a reason that we lost tonight.”
The reason they lost? A little fatigue, a lack of effort and the Dallas Stars doing what the Dallas Stars had done best all season.
“That’s Dallas Stars hockey. For two periods, that was Dallas Stars hockey. We were skating. We were on top of them. We were creating a lot of offense from good defensive structure all over the ice. That’s how we play,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said.
Game 2 is scheduled for Tuesday night.