John Locher / AP
Saturday, June 3, 2023 | 10:37 p.m. | Saturday, June 3, 2023 | 10:37 p.m.
No one has been harder on himself for lack of production than Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore.
It’s uncharacteristic for Theodore to not be a playoff performer. He’s had three postseasons with double-digit points. He’s not shy of the bright playoff lights.
Something has had to have hampered him, physically or mentally. Whatever it is, it didn’t exist Saturday when he Golden Knights got their star back in a big way.
Theodore scored his first goal of the playoffs, in the 18th game of the Golden Knights’ postseason, and it was one of massive importance during Vegas’ 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena.
“Having not scored so far in the playoffs, I was looking for one,” Theodore said. “I guess tonight’s a good night to get the first one.”
But it wasn’t just the fact that Theodore scored. It’s not that those watching needed to be reminded that he’s capable of being one of the better defensemen in the league when he displays that scoring touch.
It’s how Theodore scored that serves as a subtle reminder of how good he can be.
The puck beat Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky at 10:54 of the second period, but the 10 seconds prior to that was the show. Theodore had two shots in that span; the first was a blast from the blue line that was blocked by Panthers forward Anthony Duclair.
Vegas reloaded the puck back to Theodore, who gathered at the blue line. Duclair, hobbled by Theodore’s first shot, stayed on him as Theodore spun toward the wall. He got Duclair to bite and juked his way back to center ice with plenty of room to create.
Theodore let the shot go, with teammate Brett Howden providing a screen in front, and scored the goal to give the Golden Knights a 2-1 lead.
“I’m just trying to create some space,” Theodore said. “Fortunate (that) we had bodies in front and had a good screen, and we were just able to beat him.”
The Golden Knights’ blue line has been a constant for years. The ability to roll three defense pairs no matter the situation — something coach Bruce Cassidy can trust in games like these — has been Vegas’ strength dating to the inaugural season.
Nothing has shown that more than this postseason. The fact that the Golden Knights have been able to win and sit three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup without Theodore’s offensive contributions shows how deep Vegas is.
No defenseman has yet to reach double figures in points, but the Golden Knights have seven players with at least 12 points. Six players have at least six goals; the Vegas blue line has scored five goals combined.
Zach Whitecloud was one of them, as his goal goes down as the official game-winner that broke a 2-2 tie in the third period. Whitecloud’s score kick-started a three-goal third period that pushed Vegas to hand the Panthers their worst loss in nearly two months.
Five different players scored for the Golden Knights, which will take a 1-0 lead into Game 2 back here on Monday (5 p.m., TNT). Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith added the other three tallies.
“I feel like a lot of us felt more comfortable tonight,” Theodore said.
Theodore’s offense shined on a night where he and defensive partner Brayden McNabb played a quality shutdown game. Theodore and McNabb were on the ice for 18 shot attempts generated by the Golden Knights and only allowed seven from Florida at 5-on-5. Vegas also didn’t give up a goal when Theodore was on the ice.
Theodore’s ability to drive the offense is an X factor, as well. The Golden Knights rely on Theodore at times to carry from the defensive zone and get Vegas to set up offensively. Vegas had 10 scoring chances at 5-on-5 when Theodore was on the ice.
“He’s an elite player when he moves his feet like that,” Marchessault said. “I know he’s been more in his head the last few games, but he’s playing good hockey for us.”
Cassidy said Theodore’s game had turned for the better since the Western Conference Final against the Dallas Stars. Theodore only had two assists in the six-game series, but Cassidy felt Theodore started to turn the corner in driving the offense.
Cassidy wants him to take advantage of man-to-man situations more, like when Duclair was trying to stop him,.
“When you have a little bit of space, that’s your time to be creative, whether it be back down the wall or in the middle,” Cassidy said. “Shea has the ability to move laterally as good as any defenseman I’ve ever seen.”
Theodore’s goal also came at a crucial time after goalie Adin Hill made, arguably, the best save of the playoffs — getting his stick on Panthers forward Nick Cousins’ tap-in from the crease to keep it a 1-1 game. It was at the same end of the ice, and eerily similar, to Braden Holtby’s save in Game 2 of the Cup Final at T-Mobile Arena in 2018. That save propelled the Washington Capitals to their first championship.
This save came at Game 1 when the stakes were still much in the balance. Perhaps it will propel the Golden Knights to their first championship.
If this is the start of what’s to come for Theodore, it might accelerate that process.
“He’s one of the best defensemen in the league. When he doesn’t score, I think it can build on a guy,” Stone said. “That’s why he’s so hard on himself because he expects greatness, and that was a great goal.”