DALLAS — When Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill arrived at his crease after the second intermission on Tuesday, he shook his blocker glove and popcorn fell out.
It’s the remains of a bag of popcorn that a fan threw at him as he walked down the tunnel to get the ice cream. He narrowly missed Hill’s mask as he tipped over the ice and crashed to the ground in front of forward William Carrier.
And even though it happened after the second intermission, it technically wasn’t for the start of the third period. The Golden Knights and Stars still had to complete the last 21 seconds of the second period, which was delayed after aluminum beer bottles and trash rained down from the stands full of frustrated fans at the American Airlines Center.
Dallas was frustrated. By the 4-0 scoreline, which ended up being the final score of the Golden Knights’ dominating victory, and by the disheartening 3-0 series deficit the Stars face in the Conference Finals of West.
“Everyone in the building was frustrated tonight,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said of the incident, after a loss pushed his team to the brink of elimination.
Frustration spilled into the stands, but it started with Stars captain Jamie Benn in the opening minutes of the game. He leaned over Vegas captain Mark Stone, who was lying on his back, and made a cross check that resulted in a five-minute major and a game foul that ended the night of Well.
The Stars were already trailing at the time, following an early goal from Jonathan Marchessault, and things only got worse for them from there. Ivan Barbashev scored on the ensuing power play, and Carrier added another to put the game away before the first intermission.
The rough play at the head of the Vegas captain could easily have resulted in retaliation, but the Golden Knights were surprisingly calm. They stayed that way throughout the match, coldly executing their game plan and frustrating yet another opponent.
“It feels good,” defender Nicolas Hague said. “We did exactly what we had to do. We scored big goals and when they started running we stuck together and kept going.
There was very visible frustration among the Stars players during the game. Max Domi tackled Hague late in the second period, saving him to the tapes in the corner. Hague calmly stood up and laughed as Domi threw several punches through his gloves.
Hague received a penalty on the play. Not for fighting back, but for mocking Domi and giving him a thumbs up as the officials escorted him to the box.
“I think you can definitely see the frustration spilling over a bit, which is understandable,” Hague said. “I think it’s just a credit to us and how we played.”
The Stars aren’t the first team frustrated by the Golden Knights in the playoffs. Tuesday night’s game looked like many of Vegas’ first two series against Edmonton and Winnipeg.
The question is, what makes the Golden Knights so frustrating to play against? They aren’t too physical in terms of big hits, ranking 14th in hits in the regular season and 11th among just 16 teams in the playoffs. Instead, Vegas frustrates opponents with an infuriating level of defense.
“Good defensive hockey,” replied Alex Pietrangelo when asked why his team was so frustrating to play. “Every series we frustrate the best players, the skilled players. It’s a buy-in across the board. This is not a D pairing or a forward line. Yes, there are certain matchups that we use, but collectively as a group we are clogging up the middle of the ice and frustrating the teams.
The Golden Knights have won with their depth throughout this postseason. They send wave after wave of stubborn forechecks onto the boards, applying constant pressure until the opposition cracks.
“Our forwards have been absolute hounds on the forecheck,” Hague said. “I know as well as any defenseman that it’s not fun to go back there constantly and knock out pucks. You tire quickly when it keeps coming back to you. This makes the game much more difficult.
Vegas was near the top of the league in the regular season with 8.59 takeouts per 60 minutes. He’s increased significantly to 10.39 per 60 minutes, which ranks him third in the playoffs and first among the remaining four teams. Losing the puck frustrates a hockey player more than a big hit. Hague has been through this many times in his career and understands why the Vegas brand of hockey has frustrated the opposition.
“It sucks when that happens, and our forwards did a great job,” Hague said. “They’re just kind of a dog on a bone there, constantly reloading and flipping pucks and if there’s no play to be made then it’s right behind the goal line, forcing them to play it. come out again.”
Both of Vegas’ even-strength goals in the first period of Tuesday’s game were the product of forechecking. Marchessault, Barbashev and Jack Eichel applied the pressure early, winning several tabletop battles in the Stars’ zone until a puck jumped through the air and straight at Eichel. He caught it calmly, settled the puck, froze Jake Oettinger with a look at the net and passed it to Marchessault for a one-timer into a wide-open net.
Later in that frame, Carrier’s fourth line, Keegan Kolesar and Teddy Blueger tossed the puck into the area and fought for it until Carrier had a chance and lifted a nice backhand shot over the top. Oettinger’s shoulder to make it 3-0.
When opposing defenders get past that forecheck and it’s time to attack, Vegas becomes even more frustrating. The Golden Knights have done an exceptional job of limiting odd rushes in these playoffs, even against the most dangerous players. By crushing those easy attacking opportunities, they return any hard-earned scoring chance.
Even after the teams settled into the offensive zone, Vegas protected the slot and the front of the net well. The compact zone defense that coach Bruce Cassidy installed this season has been on full swing in the playoffs. Despite consistently losing the battle for possession (with Corsi’s third-worst share of 47.13%), the Golden Knights allowed just 10.09 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, which ranks them in third rank.
In other words: Vegas spent a lot of time defending but turned down slot opportunities and forced shots to come from further away from the net with great success. It’s frustrating.
“I can’t speak to their mindset, but I know what we’re doing is making it difficult for them to come in and work for their chances,” Cassidy said. “That’s how we want to play. We have a big D core. Our style of play is to protect the middle of the ice. »
The Golden Knights front of net is defended by 6-foot-3, 215-pound Pietrangelo; The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Hague; 6-foot-4, 215-pound Brayden McNabb; as well as Alec Martinez, Zach Whitecloud and Shea Theodore, all of whom weigh over 200 pounds. They all use their size and strength to their advantage and regularly stretch to get in front of the shots (leading the NHL by a wide margin in blocks).
“It takes a team effort and I thought we didn’t get any rest tonight,” said Hill, who stopped all 34 shots he faced for the first playoff shutout of his career. “Our commitment to the D-zone was huge and we never let them get that momentum, so I think that’s why they got so frustrated.”
The Golden Knights discouraged their opponents with a solid and structured defense. They outlasted teams in the battle of patience, to stick to the system and not force plays.
For their part, emotions got the better of them a few times. Pietrangelo’s suspension for a slash on Leon Draisaitl in the second round comes to mind. The playoffs are emotional, but overall they’ve been better at sticking to the game plan most nights, and that’s a big reason they’re one win away from the Stanley Cup Finals.
Late Tuesday night, after a game where he stopped all 34 pucks he faced, Hill sat down at the press conference and calmly joked about being hit with a bag of popcorn.
“I guess everything was hitting me tonight,” he said with a laugh.
(Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images)