Vegas overcomes Draisaitl’s 4 goals in opener
- Ryan S. Clark is an NHL reporter for ESPN.
LAS VEGAS — How the Vegas Golden Knights walked away with a 6-4 win Wednesday night against the Edmonton Oilers in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs could be a microcosm of what lies ahead.
Everything the Golden Knights sought to accomplish in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals at T-Mobile Arena fit within their overall scheme. But it also came with a sense of latitude, that there could be exceptions.
On Wednesday night, Oilers superstar center Leon Draisaitl was the exception. The 2020 Hart Memorial Trophy winner scored all four of his team’s goals, taking his postseason totals to a league-high 11 goals and 15 points.
But asked whether he took any consolation from his four-goal performance, Draisaitl said simply, “No.”
Draisaitl’s four-goal game came less than 24 hours after veteran Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski, who missed five games in the first round while in the concussion protocol, also scored four times in his team’s 5-4 overtime loss Tuesday to the Seattle Kraken. It was only the second time in league history that a player had a four-goal performance on consecutive days in the postseason, according to the NHL.
Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy was far more vocal about Draisaitl’s performance than Draisaitl. Cassidy was breaking down what happened on all four goals before making a statement about Draisaitl that drew laughter.
“Leon Draisaitl with his 11th goal of the playoffs,” Cassidy said. “Does that sound funny to you? Eleven goals. We’re in the first game of the second round. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”
But on the whole, Cassidy and his players sounded mostly pleased with their overall defensive approach.
“I thought we did have defensive success to be quite honest with you,” Cassidy said with a grin. “I didn’t think it was a barrage. They had a real good push in the third where we got on our heels a little bit. We cannot do that against this team. We almost had to go back to playing like we were behind once it got to 5-4. We still made plays, so, that’s what it looked like for me tonight.”
Going back to his time with the Boston Bruins, Cassidy’s defensive tactics are designed to be suppressive. It’s a structure that, when at its peak, has all five skaters actively engaged in the forecheck while constantly skating. From there, it’s about taking that movement and adding other components, whether they be subtle or a bit more pronounced.
Vegas limited Edmonton to three shots on goal early and finished the opening frame with only eight total shots.
“If we have a chance to dictate, we’re going to take it,” said Golden Knights center William Karlsson, who finished with an assist. “I think we did that. We had a great start, and it just continued on. I think overall, we played a pretty good game. I think we were dictating most of the game, and if you can keep it that way, that would be great. I would rather have that than let them dictate the game.”
Draisaitl scored the bookend goals of a five-goal opening period. His first came on the power play, then the Golden Knights scored three straight thanks to Ivan Barbashev, Michael Amadio and captain Mark Stone.
Vegas was 11 seconds away from taking a two-goal lead into intermission before Draisaitl, who was just to the right of goaltender Laurent Brossoit, found enough space to bank the puck off Brossoit’s back to cut the lead to 3-2.
Draisaitl tied the game less than two minutes into the third period with a power-play goal for a unit that finished 2-for-3 on the extra skater advantage.
If Draisaitl scoring seemingly at will has become a familiar sight, so has the number of rapid goals scored within two minutes. Every first-round series had at least two instances in which two goals were scored in quick succession.
That happened again Wednesday night when the Golden Knights took a 5-3 lead when Barbashev scored his second and Chandler Stephenson also scored. The goals were scored 50 second apart.
“I don’t think we adhered to what our game plan was tonight,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “I thought we were too loose, and as I said, I thought we made some individual errors that we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Draisaitl scored his fourth to cut the lead to 5-4 before a late empty-net goal from Jack Eichel made it 6-4.
As for the Golden Knights’ defensive approach, the Oilers entered the semifinal round second in the NHL with 34.1 shots per game and had 27 on Wednesday night.
Edmonton also leads the league in high-danger chances per 60 minutes and is fourth in high-danger goals per 60, according to Natural Stat Trick. Vegas held Edmonton to just eight high-danger chances, with seven of them coming in the third period.
“It’s no surprise to anyone that on any given night that either of those guys [Draisaitl or Connor McDavid] — and they got more than just those two guys, and that’s no disrespect to them,” Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud said. “They’ve got guys up and down the lineup that can contribute in those facets. But as a five-man group and as a team, you have to focus your energy on the things they do well and the personnel they have on the ice at the time. … Four goals, but you got to do your best to try and limit that.”
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