Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via AP
Published Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020 | 5:38 p.m.
Updated 2 hours, 12 minutes ago
The Golden Knights had a problem early this season. They just kept letting winnable games slip away.
The players said so, as did the eye test, the analytics and every frustrated Vegas fan after a late goal turned a would-be win into another frustrating loss.
The Golden Knights are a different team now. The team that was out of a playoff spot in January looks like a juggernaut now — undefeated in the season restart, rolling through opponents, and after Thursday’s 4-3 win in Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks, halfway finished with the first round.
“It’s a very tight-knit group and everyone buys into the system and does the right things, and I think in the long run you get rewarded,” said goalie Robin Lehner, who was traded to Vegas in February. “It’s a very well-structured team here, and there’s a lot of skill at the same time. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
The Golden Knights from the first half of the season are gone, left in the Ottawa snow the day they brought in Peter DeBoer, adding a new independent variable to speed up the positive regression the team knew was coming. Every game it seemed the Golden Knights had the shot attempts or expected goals to win, but they only managed 24 victories in their first 49 games.
Thursday’s game had an early-season type of feel to it. The Golden Knights bombarded Chicago goalie Corey Crawford with pucks, but after Mark Stone’s goal went in at 17:20 of the second to give Vegas a 3-2 lead, Crawford was impenetrable. Chicago’s net was under siege, but the Blackhawks managed to tie it with 13 seconds left in the second and escape the third period unscathed.
Overtime arrived, and with it the chance for chaos. The Blackhawks are good in transition, and one defensive breakdown would have been all it took to sink a Golden Knights game that should have been in the bag. Dylan Strome even hit the crossbar in overtime.
Vegas didn’t let that happen, watching its third line set up the game-winner. Nick Cousins, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch — of whom only Tuch was an early-season regular — took away the puck and set up four shot attempts in 17 seconds at Crawford. When they left the ice, it allowed Reilly Smith and Paul Stastny to hop on the ice immediately into the zone and score in overtime. It was Smith’s third goal this series, and the first playoff overtime goal of his career.
In the 11:43 that Cousins, Roy and Tuch were on the ice together at 5-on-5, the Golden Knights had 22 shot attempts. The Blackhawks had five.
“I thought they tilted the ice in our favor almost every time they were out there, particularly in the third and overtime,” DeBoer said. “We asked those guys to do that and I thought they were real effective tonight.”
There was also the man in net, the goalie who has done nothing but win, but in doing so has supplanted one of the most adored men in Las Vegas sports history. Lehner ran his winning streak to start his Vegas career to seven with 22 saves on Thursday, becoming the first goalie in almost a decade to win his first seven decisions with a team.
DeBoer insisted after the game that he doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1, even as Lehner has started the last three games, the first time since Lehner arrived that he did not alternate starts with Marc-Andre Fleury. With Vegas facing a back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday, it’s possible both goalies get a start.
“I think I’ve been clear since we started this that we have two starters,” DeBoer said. “How I roll them out is going to be day-to-day, based on what I feel gives us the best chance to win a game and win a series.”
In an ideal world, though, the Golden Knights’ skaters will make it so it doesn’t matter who the goalie is, and through six-plus periods of this series, they’ve done that for five of them.
After Stastny and Tomas Nosek scored in the first for a 2-0 lead, the Blackhawks had their best period of the two games, scoring three times but never taking the lead.
In the third period and overtime, the Golden Knights outshot the Blackhawks 23-7. Even as Crawford was trying to fend off Vegas long enough for his team to steal a goal, the Golden Knights refused to give an inch.
“When you’re defending all the time and trying to find the man, trying to find the puck, it gets exhausting,” Stastny said. “When you play good teams, it’s the first team that plays its style instead of reacting to what the other team is doing, and I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
For half the season, the Golden Knights battled what the statistical world calls random variance and what the hockey world calls puck luck.
DeBoer taking over as coach, Lehner taking over as starter, Cousins and Alec Martinez and Zach Whitecloud coming in and securing key roles — these things helped Vegas reduce the inherent randomness of hockey and make its own luck.
The Golden Knights now look like the team they felt they should have been all season. The Blackhawks couldn’t stop them in either of the first two games. If Vegas keeps playing like this, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can.