LAS VEGAS — Given the current landscape in the NHL, a team can give up four goals in a Stanley Cup playoff game and its coach can still feel like it had “defensive success.”
That was Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy’s point in using those words while offering his assessment of his team after a 6-4 win Wednesday night against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals. He wasn’t trying to deflect questions about Vegas’ blue-line play. Nor was he attempting to take anything away from the individual who scored all four Edmonton goals, superstar center Leon Draisaitl.
All Cassidy was saying is what constitutes defensive success in the NHL these days is a more nuanced concept than most might believe.
And he’s not the only person associated with either the Golden Knights or Oilers who is making the same point.
“For us, in the end, we’re about the end result in the playoffs. 8-7 is a win for us,” Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft said. “Are there things you can improve defensively? Yes. We’re quite aware that we were the top team down the stretch. But we’re also aware the second-hottest team down the stretch is the one we’re playing. They have certain attributes, and one of those attributes is that they can score.”
Several scenarios could play out Saturday in Game 2 at T-Mobile Arena. There could be fewer goals. But there is also the realistic chance that this could be another game with close to — or even more than — the combined 10 goals Vegas and Edmonton scored in the series opener.
So what does defensive success look like in a playoff series that features the two teams that are the proverbial poster children for the NHL’s continuing offensive surge?
When asked that question, Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse paused for a few seconds and chuckled before answering.
“We look back at the games that we’ve played against them all season long and we’ve held them to three goals or in that area,” Nurse said. The Oilers held the Golden Knights to an average of 3.5 goals in the regular season. “I’d say that’s probably a better picture of where our defensive game should be at.
“We shouldn’t have 10 goals in the first game of a series. But that’s what happens when you have two teams with high firepower. To judge it from a defensive standpoint, [giving up] three and under is probably a good way to look at it.”
Returning to what Woodcroft said about how the regular season ended, the Oilers entered the playoffs tied for the most wins since March 1 while also leading the league with 4.43 goals per game. The Golden Knights were third in wins and eighth in goals with 3.55 per contest in that span.
Those figures are further evidence of the leaguewide increase in scoring. During the regular season, the NHL had the most combined goals per game (6.36) in nearly 30 years. That has bled into the postseason with teams combining to average 6.32 goals per game, which is both slightly above last year’s pace (6.31) and is not far from the most since the 1994-95 playoffs, when teams averaged 6.36 goals per game.
Goals are the most obvious metric one might consider in determining whether a team had defensive success. But again — nuance.
Cassidy had the empirical and scientific evidence from Wednesday’s 5-on-5 sequences to support his argument. The Golden Knights aggressively interacted with Oilers superstar Connor McDavid every time he had the puck. They paid attention. They used their bodies and sticks to serve as speed bumps against a player who skates at a pace that often leaves teams in his wake, searching for answers.
Vegas held Edmonton to eight high-danger scoring chances, with seven of them coming in the third period when the Oilers were making a push. The Oilers are second in the playoffs in shots at 34.1 per game yet were kept to 27 in Game 1. They are second in scoring chances per 60 minutes at 34.85 but managed just 27, and also finished well below their average of 15.29 high-danger scoring chances per 60, which is 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 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.”
But there were also issues. Like the Oilers going 2-for-3 on the power play. Or Draisaitl, one of Edmonton’s two Hart Trophy winners, scoring four times. On one of those goals, Draisaitl banked the puck off Laurent Brossoit’s back in a move that reinforced why he’s one of the best players in the world.
“Obviously, he made a good play and you look at it, take three seconds and you gotta move on,” Golden Knights defenseman Zach Whitecloud said. “You can’t change what happened. You gotta try and fix it and you just gotta pay attention again to the details of defending certain guys that are on the ice. Again, that’s up to the five guys that are on the ice to recognize that and you make sure you get the job done.”
But this is something of a two-way street regarding what defensive success can look like in this series. Even though they gave up five even-strength goals (one an empty-netter), the Oilers too found areas of success. They limited the Golden Knights to seven high-danger chances and 21 total scoring chances in 5-on-5 play, numbers that are below what Vegas has averaged throughout the playoffs.
Plus, it’s not like the Golden Knights could ever really find comfort. They took a 3-1 lead only to have Draisaitl score with 11 seconds left in the first period. And when the Oilers tied the game at 3-3 early in the third, the Golden Knights pushed it to 5-3 by scoring two goals less than 60 seconds apart, only to see Draisaitl make it a one-goal game five minutes later.
Also, consider who scored for Vegas. Ivan Barbashev, who has won a Stanley Cup, scored twice. The all-around threat that is Mark Stone, who becomes even more dangerous in the postseason, brought his point total to 10 through six games. Chandler Stephenson, who has used his time in Vegas to cement himself as a top-six forward, also has a Stanley Cup on his résumé. His game winner was his fifth goal of the playoffs, which is more than he had in his previous 66 postseason games combined.
Now throw in the goal from Michael Amadio and the empty-netter from Jack Eichel with less than a minute left. Those are five players whose individual efforts reinforced what makes finding defensive success against the Golden Knights a challenge in its own right.
That specific challenge being they can all put the puck in the net. Vegas had 12 players finish the regular season with more than 10 goals and 20 players who had more than 10 points.
It’s why Woodcroft said the Oilers must look to avoid giving up the “freebies,” something Nurse explained in greater detail.
“That’s the turnovers that give up a grade A [scoring chance] and giving up 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s,” Nurse said. “The freebies are the things that are in our own control where you can grind a team down low and make plays toward the net and not give up a chance against. Those are the things you can control.”