There are times in life where you meet a fork in the road. Sometimes it’s when you have to decide on a career or choice of school. Other times it may be involving some type of romantic relationship. Whatever the case may be, the choice you make is often met with much thought. I find myself in a similar paradox; one that plots two of my favourite teams against one another. It is true, I cover the Vegas Golden Knights here for The Hockey Writers since Nov 2020, and over the course of this time, I have grown a keen fondness for the team from Sin City. They play hockey, in my humble opinion, the way hockey should be played; fast, heavy, and with swagger. They have every exciting attribute you could want out of a team. Although the Golden Knight have kindled my interest, they are no match for the love of my life; the Montreal Canadiens.
The love story between the Habs and I started way back in 2006 when I was only seven years old. Just having gotten into hockey, I became a student of the game and watched every single Canadiens game my television package allowed me to.
I would research old Canadiens legends such as Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz, and Joe Malone, as well as many of the modern players at the time. I vividly remember falling in love with Cristobal Huet’s signature Reebok goalie pads, Alexei Kovalev’s dazzling stick-handling, and Michael Ryder’s howler of a snapshot. This team has truly held its place in my heart for a long time, so that is why seeing them go up against another one of my other favorite teams is pretty bitter-sweet.
Many would think I am blessed because I have two teams I am fond of playing against each other, but much like a parent watching their two children play against each other, you’re just not sure who you should root for. Well, I’m all for honesty, so I’ll let it be known; I’m cheering for Montreal in this series. That’s why it was so bittersweet to watch Vegas win tonight. All in all, it was an outstanding game by both teams, so, without further ado, let’s jump right in and analyze three takeaways from the Golden Knights momentum-shifting win in game four of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Forecheck Is Key
Having watched every minute of the series so far, I have come to a conclusion. The only way the Golden Knights can score goals on Carey Price (who is playing like a laterally blessed brick wall) is to forecheck hard, create pressure on the defensemen, and get the puck to the dirty parts of the net. Their “high-flying” offensive tricks worked in the Honda West Division because the opponents weren’t as defensively focused. In the Canadiens, the Golden Knights find an opponent applying a similar method the Greek National Team used to capture the Euro Cup in 2004.
In that summer Euro’s, Greece were heavy underdogs, not even expected to get out of the stage group of the tournament, and ultimately given 150-1 betting odds. As luck would have it, we got through, thanks to our big win in the opening game of the tournament, which came against host Portugal. As you probably know, Greece would end up winning the whole thing, capturing the hearts of millions of soccer fans around the world and instilling a sense of pride in Greeks everywhere.
Now, if you go back and watch videos of HOW Greece won their games, you’ll realize it’s a very simple strategy. They conducted some self-awareness tests before the tournament. They realized their offense could not match other powerhouses such as Portugal, Spain, and Germany. What Greece did have, though, was a boat-load of heart and a defence that could roll with the best of them. So what would happen? They would pop in a goal, then play defence the rest of the game. In football terms, this is called “parking the bus.” Instead of going “toe-to-toe” with the other offensive powers, they decided to stifle them with defense and convert on only one chance to win games. This would capture them a European Trophy.
The tactics implemented by the Canadiens are the same that were used by the Greeks in 2004. They score first, then rely on heavy defence, as well as Carey Price, to win the game. This game was very much the same until the final 10 minutes of the third period. It seems that the Golden Knights finally understood what to do, and they implemented it. If you were watching the game, the Brayden McNabb goal was scored due to a previous great forecheck, which led to the puck popping out in front of the net so that McNabb would subsequently bury it. The overtime goal for Nicolas Roy was the same type of play. Great puck cycling in the Canadiens zone, characterized by great forechecking, which lead Nic Roy to get the puck in front of the net and bury it home.
If Vegas wants to keep winning, they will need to start implementing a harder forecheck in their games. Now I’m not trying to expose the Canadiens, but all the Golden Knight need to do is dump and chase whenever Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot are on the ice. Both are not the most mobile, fluid defensemen, so if you get it in deep on them and lay the body, you will come out with the puck more times than not.
Lehner Stands Tall
It is quite a tall task to be asked to come into a series-altering Game 4 and win the game for your team, but that is exactly what Robin Lehner did on Sunday night. The Sweden native was outstanding, posting a .964 save percentage while stopping 27 of the 28 shots he faced on the night. What stood out to me the most was that there was seemingly no rust in Lehner’s game. Remember, this is a man who has played only four times in the past 50 days, so for him to come out and have an extraordinary game like that speaks volumes about his natural ability as a goaltender.
Does the question now become who starts Game 5? Do you go back to the man who was responsible for bringing you here or the guy who’s hot at the moment? I don’t know, but if I were coach Peter DeBoer, I would think long and hard about my next course of action.
If we are going by stats, all signs point to Fleury, who has enjoyed a remarkable playoff so far, posting a 9-6 record to go along with a 1.97 goals-against average. On the other hand, you have a rested Lehner, who looked very confident in last night’s game. He may not have the stats to show for it, but it feels as if he is the goalie of choice in this series. Whatever the final decision may be, the Golden Knights can be confident that they have two great goalies who can get the job done.
Big Guns Nowhere to Be Found
Heading into this series, I was nervous, as a Canadiens fan, knowing the Golden Knights had Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty in the lineup. Both players are offensive dynamos and know how to create scoring chances. In this series. though, neither has seem to come alive, as they have a measly two points between the two of them.
One of the reasons they might not be getting the same chances as in other series is due to the defensive measures taken by Montreal. The Canadiens are great at cutting off the middle of the ice, maintaining solid positioning in the defensive zone, as well as using their sticks for poke-checks. So far, whatever they are doing has worked, as both Stone and Pacioretty have been seemingly useless in this series.
The way they can both get their mojo back is to do what I mentioned in my first takeaway. It’s time to buckle up and get into the corners; dump the puck, chase after it, and come out with it after fighting for it in a scrum in the corner. This type of gritty hockey is the only way Stone and Pacioretty will see more changes in the coming games.
Run it Back
Game 5 of this exciting series is set to take place back in Vegas on Tuesday night, as both teams will play in front of another packed house at T-Mobile Arena. That game is set to go at 9 PM and can be watched on NBCSN, Sportsnet, as well as French provider TVA.