Thursday, June 8, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Sunrise, Fla. —
The first of several times goalie Adin Hill caused a thunderous roar from the T-Mobile Arena crowd during this year’s Stanley Cup Final came early in the second period of Game 1.
The Golden Knights’ goalie now famously dove backside and extended his stick to stop a shot from Florida Panthers forward Nick Cousins. The clamor started immediately but nearly ceased just as quickly.
The puck was still loose, at least until Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo reacted rapidly to get his stick down and prevent a put-back attempt.
“‘Petro’ makes an incredible defensive play there to keep the puck out of the net,” Golden Knights captain Mark Stone marveled after the game.
Nice to know someone noticed.
Hill’s save is now cemented as one of the best in Stanley Cup history, but it would have never been completed without heroics from the Golden Knights’ defense.
That’s been the story of the Golden Knights’ entire season, a campaign that now sees them two wins away from a championship with a 2-0 series lead over the Panthers going into Game 3 at 5 p.m. PDT today at FLA Live Arena.
Hill has been the breakout postseason star over the last few weeks, since coming off an injury and the bench to take over the Golden Knights’ crease. Golden Knights fans chanted his name in the middle of Game 2 after a run of spectacular saves.
Big-name forwards Jonathan Marchessault, Stone and Jack Eichel have managed highlights to elicit similar reactions. The Vegas defensemen almost feel lost in the shuffle, and that’s not fair.
The Vegas blue-liners continue to be the backbone of the team, just like they’ve been since the season began eight months ago.
“Our defensive core is probably the best in the league in my mind,” Hill said.
It all starts with “Petro” and Alec Martinez as the top pairing. Both former Stanley Cup champions (Pietrangelo with the Blues in 2019 and Martinez with the Kings in 2012 and 2014), they command even more respect from their teammates and set the tone on a nightly basis in the playoffs according to coach Bruce Cassidy.
Watch Pietrangelo and Martinez closely enough, and they’re making subtle plays like the former’s aforementioned deflection all night. Early in the second period of Game 2, Hill flung a careless pass intercepted by Florida captain Aleksander Barkov and fans gasped at what looked like an opportunity for the visitors to get back in a game they trailed 3-0.
Pietrangelo was the lone player in between Barkov and Hill, and sure enough, poked away the puck from the former and created an opportunity for Vegas going back the other way.
During his Stanley Cup run with the Blues, Pietrangelo was the center of attention as the team’s captain who racked up 19 points in the postseason. It couldn’t be much different with this year, and although he only has nine postseason points so far, he’s been every bit as important to Vegas as he was once for St. Louis.
Pietrangelo leads the team in playoff ice time, with 50 minutes more than the second-place Martinez, and shifts, with 28 more than the second-place Martinez, despite missing a game in a second-round series against Edmonton for a suspension. Pietrangelo may only have one playoff goal, as part of the 4-0 rout in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final over the Dallas Stars, but his effort and tenacity sparks everything for the Golden Knights.
“It’s good defensive hockey,” Pietrangelo said of what’s led the Golden Knights to this point. “I think every series we’re frustrating the top skill players, but it’s a buy-in through the lineup. It’s not one d-pairing or one forward line. There are certainly matchups we use, but collectively as a group, we are clogging up the middle of the ice and frustrating teams, and guys are paying a price for blocking shots when we need to block shots, and Hillsy is doing his job when he needs to. When you have a buy-in up and down the lineup defensively like that, it’s frustrating to play against.”
No one on the Golden Knights’ roster was more frustrated going into the Western Conference Final than Shea Theodore. Typically Vegas’ second-most valuable blue-liner behind only Pietrangelo, the original Golden Knight was mired in a slump through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Cassidy said he had a one-on-one meeting with Theodore early in the Dallas series and had started to see a change in him. It may not have been flashy or evident to the naked eye right away but, as Golden Knights’ defensemen have often done, Theodore was doing all the little things right according to his coach.
In the Stanley Cup Final, everyone has been able to see Theodore’s impact. He’s looked to be back in top form, leading the team with a 76% expected goal share while he’s on the ice, according to naturalstattrick.com.
Theodore broke a 27-game scoreless drought in Game 1 when he shook off Florida forward Anthony Duclair, who’s known as a first-class skater, and launched a missile from the blue line that beat goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.
“Having not scored so far in the playoffs, I was looking for one,” Theodore said.
Theodore has not been Vegas’ sole defenseman to earn a major moment of his own in the Stanley Cup Final. Zach Whitecloud scored the goal after Theodore’s, finding open space in the center of the ice to similarly blast a puck past Bobrovsky.
Whitecloud’s third-pairing partner, Nic Hague, enlivened the fan base later in the same period when he laughed through a series of cheap-shot punches that got Panthers star Matthew Tkachuk ejected from the game.
Martinez scored his first goal of the postseason in Game 2 as part of a four-score barrage in the first half of the game that saw Bobrovsky pulled in the middle of the second period. That leaves original Golden Knight Brayden McNabb as the only starting defenseman to have not scored these playoffs, but he’s been so characteristically rock-solid on defense that Marchessault, after scoring twice in Game 2, felt compelled to give a shout out to McNabb.
The rest of the Golden Knights know how essential their defensive group is to their chances to lift the Cup even if the spotlight has primarily shined elsewhere. Hill has been under the lights and applause the most lately, but he’s the first to try to shift some of it back to where it’s belonged the post all season.
“We’re really playing well defensively,” Hill said. “We’ve really kept teams to the outside.”