It’s hard to think of a series the past few years that has been more anticipated than Avalanche-Golden Knights. Rarely do the two best teams in the NHL meet up before the third round, or more likely at all given the vagaries of hockey. But with the divisional setup this year, it was going to be hard for these two to avoid each other. Fans were pulsating at the thought of the speed these games could reach.
Well, they have, but only one team has gotten there.
While the series is tied 2-2, with Game 5 tomorrow night in Denver, since somewhere in the middle of the Game 2, the Golden Knights have absolutely mauled the Avalanche. The Avs were truly fortunate to get out of Game 2 with a win in overtime. They might tell you they were less than half a period from having a 3-0 lead, and technically that’s true. But Vegas’s two wins in Nevada were just about the least they deserve.
The numbers are staggering, considering that the Avs were one of the best metric/analytics teams since the Analytic Era of hockey began (post-Bettman Lockout II). The Avs were doing things during the regular season we had rarely seen, dominating attempts and chances in a truly despotic way. And now it’s happening to them. In Game 2, Vegas had 62 percent of the attempts and 71 percent (!) of the expected goals. In Game 3 those figures were 63 and 76 (!!). In yesterday’s Game 4 they were 56 and 69 (not very nice still).
A glance at yesterday’s heatmap from NaturalStatTrick.com pretty much exhibits what’s been going on in total. Can check it out here.
Whatever way you slice it, the Knights have put a boot in the ass of Colorado with a twist the past three games.
How have they done it? Pretty much by going hell bent for leather on the forecheck. You often hear of teams “keeping a third man high” when forechecking in the offensive zone. Even the more aggressive teams will keep their third forward near the blue line to read the play and drop back if the opponent is starting to break out clean, while also poised to dive down deep to join the forecheck if there’s an opportunity to create a turnover.
The Knights have ignored this completely. They’re not keeping a third man high. Sometimes not even a fourth. The Avs are most dangerous when Cale Makar, or Devon Toews, or Samuel Girard get out in open ice and wheel through the neutral zone. Not only have the Knights not let them do that, they haven’t even had time to breathe before the first forechecker is on his ass. And when they move the puck to a teammate there’s already another Knight on him. And same for the next Avs player to attempt to touch the puck. The risk is that the Avs can get past all that and have odd-man rushes all day, but they haven’t come close. Because the intricacy and accuracy needed to make three passes, all one-timed, to get out of the zone at the speed required against the Knights forecheck is nearly impossible, even for a team like Colorado. And any miscue leads to serious trouble. Here’s an example from Game 2, about three minutes into the video. Ryan Graves slips, but there are already three Vegas forwards below the circles. The turnover means that the Avs aren’t set in any defensive structure, which leaves the points open for the Knights to get the puck to the net.
Which has happened consistently the past three games. That’s why that heatmap looks volcanic around the Avs net. Turnovers with puck means they can’t get into shooting lanes before the Knights d-men shoot, and then there are mad scrambles around Phillip Grubauer. The one thing about the Avs defense is that it is not very big, and they have been helpless at times clearing Vegas forwards away from the slot.
The only answers the Avs have found are merely to clear the puck out to center aimlessly, the hockey equivalent of gasping for air, which only starts the whole cycle over again. Then they either try to step up way too high in the neutral zone to cut off any Vegas dump-ins before they start, or they’re dropping off their blue line to get a headstart on retrieving them to try and find some separation from the forecheck. Both have allowed the Knights to find a runway into the zone with possession, which is exactly where you don’t want them. Here’s Max Pacioretty’s winner from Game 3, and see the ease with which they enter the zone first:
Makar isn’t close enough to Stone, who waltzes in and drops the puck to NIck Holden who has all the time and space and lane to get a shot off that Pacioretty can tip. Or Jonathan Marchessault’s hat trick goal yesterday, all started by Reilly Smith being able to sashay through the slot:
This has been happening all the time the past three games. So what are the Avs to do? They’ve tried bringing their center and even an additional winger down low on breakouts, to try to aid the defensemen, but all that’s done is left the points completely open when the puck is turned over as the Avs have three or four players below or near the goal line. They’ve tried going up the boards and then popping the puck to the middle of the defensive zone to hit that forward that has dropped low on the move to go streaking the other way. But again, the precision needed for this usually means it’s a turnover more often than a success and a rush the other way. And when it misses, the Avs have one or two forwards that have overrun the play, leaving the defensive zone a playground.
Colorado could admit defeat and try to trap in the neutral zone, but that’s hardly their nature. Most likely, instead of trying to go around the boards and then to the middle with the puck, they’re just going to have to go straight to the middle. It’s risky, because any miscue means a loose puck three feet from the net, but there’s little choice. The Knights are closing off the boards aggressively, and the only way the Avs are going to get through is to split them down the middle. Do it successfully enough and they just might get the Vegas defense to back up a little and get more space between them and their forwards to gain speed through the neutral zone.
Or they can just keep scrambling around and hope Grubauer bails them out for two out of three games. There are only bad answers.