In Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss to the Kings, it appeared the Golden Knights tried to adopt Los Angeles’ brand of hockey.
Led by newly acquired forward Ryan Reaves, Vegas laid hellacious hits, continuously clashed with the Kings after the whistle and was called for its most penalties in a single game this season.
Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, the Kings are better at physical, intimidating hockey. It won them Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014.
Tuesday night, and to a lesser extent Monday night, the Kings baited the Golden Knights into that style of game, and Los Angeles won both games to pull into a playoff position in the Pacific Division.
Vegas started the game on the right skate, with forward William Karlsson scoring his 34th goal of the season. He now sits alone at third place in the NHL in goals, five behind league-leader Alex Ovechkin.
Los Angeles would counter with four unanswered goals to end the game. The Kings’ first two scores (by Kyle Clifford and Tyler Toffoli) both came off turnovers by the Golden Knights’ in their own zone.
“The mistakes were self-inflicted,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We made some bad mistakes in the neutral zone, turned the puck over and they capitalized.”
The Kings stretched their lead to 3-1 when captain Anze Kopitar deked around Vegas goalie Max Lagace and fired the puck into the top of the net near the end of the third period.
It’s not unrealistic to think Vegas had a good chance at coming back to win in the third period. At 6-11-1 the Golden Knights have the best record in the entire NHL when trailing after two periods.
But coming back from a two-goal deficit is hard enough on its own, and doing so while spending a large portion of the period shorthanded is nearly impossible.
It started when Reaves was called for boarding after crushing Derek Forbort into the end boards. The hit wasn’t from behind, and both Reaves, his teammates and Gallant disagreed with the call.
“I don’t take penalties like that,” Reaves said. “I played against the Kings for seven years when I was in the West and I play hard. Those never get called.”
Reaves' second penalty came about four minutes later for roughing, when he pushed Drew Doughty near his face. Gallant argued the call with the officials, incurring a bench minor and putting the Golden Knights at a 5-on-3 disadvantage for the full two minutes.
“That’s why we were frustrated,” Gallant said. “We weren’t happy with them and that’s probably why I got my bench minor. You play hard, battle hard and get two penalties that you didn’t like.”
Los Angeles capitalized with the two-man advantage when Jeff Carter scored his second goal of the season.
“I’m not going to apologize for any one of those penalties,” Reaves said. “They did cost us the game but that’s my style of play. I bring energy, I bring physicality and that’s going to continue against every team we play.”
Reaves is right. The monster hits and intimidation tactics after the whistle are what Reaves does.
“The big guy (Reaves) fit in pretty good tonight,” Gallant said. “Unfortunately he had a couple penalties but he fits in pretty well. He had some big hits and that’s what we want from him, so he played his game well.”
He’s also right that the penalties cost the Golden Knights the game, or at least a chance at a comeback. The team racked up more penalty minutes in the third period than they have in the entire game on 21 different occasions this season.
“I don’t want (Reaves) to go out and change the way we play,” Gallant said. “I want us to be a clean team. We are one of the cleanest teams in the league, and we are going to play the same way.”
The Golden Knights have the second-fewest penalty minutes in the NHL and they need that to continue.
Even if the penalties weren’t called, that’s not the style of play that has made the Golden Knights the best team in the Western Conference through 60 games. Vegas has continuously out-skilled and out-skated teams — including the Kings.
In the first two meetings the Golden Knights carved circles around the Kings, winning 4-2 in Las Vegas and 3-2 in Los Angeles. They’ve done the same against similar heavy, bruising teams like the Sharks and Ducks.
But Tuesday night was different. Karlsson was pushing Kopitar down after the play, Colin Miller was looking for a big hit so badly he ended up missing the player and nearly falling into the Kings bench.
The Golden Knights are 9-6-1 in their last 17 games, and winless since acquiring Reaves.
It’s not all Reaves' fault by a long shot. He didn’t commit the turnovers that caused the Golden Knights to fall behind 3-1 in the first place. But his presence, and the brutality that he plays with, seems to have changed the character of the Golden Knights for the worse.
It’s only two games (both without key players James Neal, Shea Theodore and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare), so there’s plenty of time to fix it. Vegas still leads the Pacific Division by 10 points and will be getting healthier soon.
In the final 19 games of the season, Reaves needs to maximize the positives he brings to the ice (relentless forechecking) and minimize the negatives (three penalties in two games).