LAS VEGAS — Given the current landscape in the NHL, a team can give up four goals in a Stanley Cup playoff game and their coach can still feel like they’re doing “defensively well.”
That was Vegas Golden Knights Coach Bruce Cassidy’s argument for using those words while giving his assessment of his team after a 6:4 victory Wednesday night against the Edmonton oiler in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals. He didn’t try to deflect questions about the Vegas blue line game. Nor was he trying to take anything away from the one who scored all four of Edmonton’s goals, Superstar Center Leon Draisaitl.
All Cassidy was saying is that defensive success in the NHL these days is a more nuanced concept than most realize.
And he’s not the only person associated with either the Golden Knights or the Oilers who shares the same opinion.
“At the end of the day, what matters to us is the bottom line in the playoffs. 8-7 is a win for us,” said Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft. “Are there things you can improve defensively? Yes. We are quite aware that we were the best team on track. But we are also aware that the second hottest team on track is the one we play against . They have.” certain attributes, and one of those attributes is that they can score.”
Several scenarios could play out in Game 2 at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday. There could be fewer goals. But there’s also a reasonable chance this could be another game with nearly – or even more than – the combined 10 goals that Vegas and Edmonton scored in the series opener.
So what does defensive success look like in a playoff series where the two teams are the proverbial poster child for the NHL’s ongoing offensive surge?
When that question was asked, Oilers defense attorney Darnell nurse paused for a few seconds and giggled before answering.
“We look back on the games we’ve played against them all season and we’ve kept them at three goals or within that range,” said Nurse. The Oilers held the Golden Knights to an average of 3.5 goals during the regular season. “I would say that’s probably a better picture of where our defense should be.
“We shouldn’t score 10 goals in the first game of a series. But that happens when you have two teams with high firepower. To judge from a defensive point of view, [giving up] three and under is probably a good way to look at it.”
Going back to what Woodcroft said about the end of the regular season, the Oilers entered the playoffs with the most wins since March 1 and led the league with 4.43 goals per game. The Golden Knights were third in wins and eighth in goals during that span at 3.55 per contest.
These numbers are further evidence of the league-wide increase in scoring. During the regular season, the NHL has had the most combined goals per game (6.36) in almost 30 years. That translated into the postseason, where the teams combined averaged 6.32 goals per game, which is both slightly ahead of last year’s pace (6.31) and not far from most since the 1994-95 playoffs away when teams averaged 6.36 goals per game.
Goals are the most obvious metric one could consider to determine if a team has been successful defensively. But again – nuance.
Cassidy had the empirical and scientific evidence from Wednesday’s 5v5 sequences to back his argument. The Golden Knights aggressively interacted with the Oilers superstar Connor McDavid every time he had the puck. They paid attention. They used their bodies and sticks to act as speed bumps against a player skating at a pace that often leaves teams behind looking for answers.
Vegas held Edmonton on eight high-scoring chances, seven of which came in the third period when the Oilers pushed. The Oilers are second in the playoffs at 34.1 per game but were held to 27 in Game 1. They’re second in scoring chances per 60 minutes at 34.85, but only managed 27 and also finished well below their average of 15.29 with high risk goals per 60, which ranks second in the NHL, per Natural Stat Trick.
So there was success.
“I didn’t think it was a barrage,” Cassidy said. “They had a really good push in the third where we were a bit on our heels. We can’t do that against this side. We almost had to play like we were back again when it was 5-4.”
Leon Draisaitl pulls off a 4-goal performance in the Game 1 loss
Leon Draisaitl hits the net four times, but that’s not enough as the Oilers lose Game 1 to the Golden Knights 6-4.
But there were problems too. Like the Oilers playing 2v3 on the power play. Or Draisaitl, one of the two winners of the Hart Trophy in Edmonton, who scored four goals. On one of those goals, Draisaitl deflected the puck off Laurent Brossoit’s back, reaffirming why he is one of the best players in the world.
“Obviously he made a good game and you look at it, take three seconds and you have to go on,” said the Golden Knights defender Zach Whitecloud called. “You can’t change what happened. You have to try to fix it and you just have to go back to paying attention to the details of the defense of certain guys that are on the ice. That too is up to the five guys who are on the ice to realize that and you make sure you get the job done.”
But that’s kind of a two-way street for what defensive success in this series can look like. Despite giving up five tie goals (one of them with an empty net), the Oilers also found areas of success. They limited the Golden Knights to seven high-risk chances and a total of 21 scoring chances in 5-a-side play, numbers below Vegas’ playoff average.
Besides, it’s not like the Golden Knights could ever really find solace. They took a 3-1 lead only to let Draisaitl score with 11 seconds remaining in the first period. And when the Oilers tied the game 3-3 early in the third game, the Golden Knights made it 5-3 by scoring two goals less than 60 seconds apart, only to see Draisaitl five minutes later scored a game by one goal.
Also consider who scored for Vegas. Ivan Barbashev, who has won a Stanley Cup, scored twice. The all-round threat Mark Steinwho becomes even more dangerous in the postseason, took his score to 10 in six games. Chandler Stephenson, who used his time in Vegas to establish himself as a top-six forward, also has a Stanley Cup on his resume. His game-winning win was his fifth goal in the playoffs, more than his previous 66 postseason games combined.
Now throw in the gate Michael Amadi and the empty net off Jack Acorn with less than a minute left. That’s five players whose individual efforts have increased, making finding defensive success against the Golden Knights a challenge in itself.
That particular challenge is that they can all get the puck into the net. Vegas had 12 players who finished the regular season with more than 10 goals and 20 players who had more than 10 points.
Because of this, Woodcroft said the Oilers must try not to give up the “giveaways,” which Nurse explained in more detail.
“These are the sales that give a grade of 1 [scoring chance] and giving up 2-on-1 and 3-on-2,” said Nurse Chance vs. Those are the things you can control.”