It goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway. Playoff hockey is all about limiting mistakes and capitalizing on your opponents mistakes. Once the weather heats up, so does the competition and your margin for error becomes minuscule.
Mark Stone (61) and Alex Tuch (89)
USA Today Sports
No teams know this more than the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights. Both teams finished the regular season leading the NHL in points. Now, both teams are facing each other in the Western Conference semifinal.
Coming off a hard-fought series win over their nemesis, the Minnesota Wild, the Golden Knights were mollywhopped in Game One. Their opponents had the luxury of rest, thanks to their four game sweep of the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion, St. Louis Blues. The Avalanche embraced their name and buried the Golden Knights 7-1.
Every game after that mockery came down to the little things. Not making mistakes, holding good gaps/spacing, and playing within their system were crucial. The team who was able to capitalize on their opponents’ miscues took the games, even if they weren’t the best team on that given night.
Game Two was won by the Colorado Avalanche. Game Five was won by the Vegas Golden Knights. The Avalanche were outplayed for a majority of Game Two, but they outplayed the Golden Knights for most of Game Five. Yep, that’s hockey.
Both teams traded goals until the game was tied at two. They headed to overtime, after a scoreless third, with the Golden Knights pushing play at a 61.9% Corsi For (5-on-5). They were dominating territorially and in shot generation.
Mikko Rantanen, USA Today Sports
All it took was one split-second to change the game. In overtime, on an offensive zone faceoff, Reilly Smith knocked the stick from Mikko Rantanen’s hands. He’d go off for a soft slashing call and the ensuing Power Play naturally led to the Game Winning Goal.
After losing two straight games in Vegas, in convincing fashion, the Avalanche returned home a determined club. They were publicly criticized by their opponents for a propensity to avoid the dirty areas and for not working as hard as Vegas did, in Games Three and Four.
In Game Five, the Avalanche looked like themselves. They were fast, aggressive, hungry, hard to separate from the puck. What did it lead to? A vanishing third period lead, a home loss for their third loss in a row, and a 3-2 series deficit.
Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi got the Avalanche a two goal lead. Donskoi’s goal toward the end of the second period felt like icing on the cake. They’d returned home rejuvenated, controlled play, and they were going to retake their series lead. Were going. At least they thought they were.
With a 21-14 edge in shots the Avalanche were firmly in control of the first two periods. Marc-Andre Fleury made a number of key stops and the Golden Knights’ defense blocked approximately 1,000 other shots, to keep the game at a two-goal difference.
Early in the third, Andre Burakovsky was stripped by Mattias Janmark and Nicolas Roy, as attempted to exit the Colorado zone. Defenseman Connor Timmins was exiting parallel to him on the far side while Patrik Nemeth stayed home. Roy was able to find Alex Tuch behind Nemeth for batted puck goal that cut the Avalanche’s lead in half, just 1:03 into the period.
A short 3:04 later, Jonathan Marchessault tied the game on a simple back door tip-in. William Karlsson battled through three Avalanche defenders before finding Marchessault on the doorstep. An errant pass by the Avs’ captain Gabe Landeskog sent Vegas down the ice for that sequence.
Again, overtime was needed. With less than a minute off the clock, defenseman Ryan Graves sent a point shot off the shin pads of Mark Stone. He retrieved the puck, shot again, and this time was inadvertently blocked by Alex Pietrangelo. One Max Pacioretty pass later and Stone was off to the races.
Mark Stone Celebrates
USA Today Sports
With Nathan MacKinnon and Graves closing in on him, Stone sent a quick wrist shot toward the off-side, over Philip Grubauer’s glove. Again, more shots blocked and a turnover leading to a goal the other way. Avalanche were in the driver’s seat and gave a crucial game away.
Both games had the same storyline. One team dominates for at or above 50 minutes of game play, but eventually lose. In both instances the result was one of the formerly leading team making mistakes and losing themselves the game. Obviously their opponents played a part, but they had a stacked deck and couldn’t hold it.
Keith Jones, a former NHL player and very good analyst, notoriously pointed that out in the Game Five post-game. He harshly chastised his former Avalanche crest, for giving the game away and losing the game. Some sensitive VGK fans didn’t understand the messaging and now think he’s anti-Vegas.
It’s very hard to argue with Jones, when taking emotions, bias, and a misfit mentality out of the equation. Both teams, in Games Two and Five, coughed up leads. They couldn’t finish the game and were burned by their mistakes. It’s playoff time, against a highly competitive opponent, regardless of what side you represent.
Any mistake can turn into a goal the other way. These clubs need to minimize mistakes and bring the energy. It’s a clear key to winning games in this series and the Avalanche must be prepared. Vegas is now headed home, one win away from another Conference Final, and hungrier than ever.
This Avalanche club has yet to lose four games in a row, but the playoffs are a different animal. When the Misfit line is buzzing and producing like Top Six unit, the Golden Knights are hard to beat.
“We just gotta embrace the opportunity...Just go out and play a good hockey game.”
- Pete DeBoer, VGK Head Coach
Game Six, an elimination game on the road, is bound to be a barnburner. Whichever team shows up ready to play and makes the fewest mistakes will ultimately end up winning this game and most likely, the series.
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