Ideally for the Golden Knights, tonight’s Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Winnipeg Jets will go a lot like Saturday’s Game 1 — only in reverse.
The Jets, of course, channeled the raucous environment of Bell MTS Place to score three early goals against the Golden Knights and coast to a series-opening 4-2 victory. The atmosphere when Game 3 begins at 6 tonight at T-Mobile Arena should afford the Golden Knights the same opportunity.
Vegas established a valuable home-ice advantage that it rode to the NHL’s fifth best home record in the NHL during the regular season, but the edge has reached new levels during the playoffs. T-Mobile Arena has been packed and loud, and the building shouldn’t be underestimated as a factor in the Golden Knights’ 3-1 home postseason record with the only loss coming in the controversial Game 2 defeat to the Sharks.
Home ice alone has the Golden Knights favored to win a second straight game in the series to go up 2-1, but here are three keys to beat the Jets.
1. Get off to a strong start
Scoring first is always vital, but it takes on extra significance against Winnipeg.
The Jets might be the best team in the NHL at holding early leads. They’ve gone 37-4-6 on the year when scoring first, and 30-2-2 when leading after the first period.
Winnipeg appears to play more freely with a cushion, and amps up it pressure after early goals. The Golden Knights know all too well after being on the wrong end of a Jets onslaught in game 1.
Game 2 was a different story, as Vegas clamped down on defense and Marc-Andre Fleury turned away Winnipeg’s first 26 shots. It wasn’t until a third-period power play that the Jets found the net in a 3-1 loss.
2. Get pucks through to the net
Perhaps the biggest difference between game 1 and game 2 for the Golden Knights was how they dealt with the Jets’ defense.
Winnipeg was able to turn away plenty of Vegas’ shots before they ever reached goalie Connor Hellebuyck in game 1, registering 21 blocks. That total diminished to 10 blocks in game 2, as the Golden Knights emphasized finding cleaner looks.
Vegas were the ones getting in front of pucks in game 2, registering 22 blocks. The Golden Knights had only 15 blocks in game 1.
They need to make Hellebuyck work, and the best way to do that is to pepper him with pucks that his teammates can’t prevent.
3. Take care of the puck on defense
Another sloppy aspect of game 1 for the Golden Knights was puck control.
The Jets smothered the Golden Knights’ defensemen, and turned the approach into 10 takeaways and a number of scoring chances. Vegas tweaked its approach and was able to stay clear of Winnipeg in game 2, as the home team managed only a pair of takeaways.
Both teams are sure to adjust before game 3, but don’t expect the Jets to ease their pressure. Hounding defensemen has worked for them all year, and it’s crucial to the Golden Knights’ chances to stave off such advances.