With sputtering offense, Golden Knights on verge of elimination against Stars

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Dallas Stars right wing Denis Gurianov (34) checks Vegas Golden Knights defenceman Nick Holden (22) during the first period of Game 4 of the NHL hockey Western Conference final, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Published Sat, Sep 12, 2020 (7:54 p.m.)

Updated Sat, Sep 12, 2020 (9:35 p.m.)

The Golden Knights have lost seven games this postseason. There’s one common theme in each defeat: The scoring chances are there, the puck’s just not going in the net.

Against the Blackhawks in the first round, it was one loss with a 3-0 series lead. No worries; shake it off and move on.

Against the Canucks in the next round, it happened twice. A little nerve-wracking, but no significant damage

Against the Dallas Stars, it’s become a major problem, the latest instance a 2-1 loss in Game 4 Saturday of the Western Conference Final. When the offense dried up against Chicago and Vancouver, the Golden Knights had built enough of a head start that it wasn’t fatal. But now, down 3-1 in the series, Vegas is running out of time to figure out how to make it right.

“It’s frustrating but we have to stick to our game plan,” Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith said. “Getting negative and squeezing your stick too tight isn’t going to help anyone. Stick to our game plan, a little bit more urgency on pucks when we do find them. We just have to find a way right now.”

Smith has not scored since Game 1 of the Vancouver series, a span of 10 games. Ditto for Jonathan Marchessault. It’s been seven games for Max Pacioretty. The Golden Knights forwards have struggled dating back to Game 5 of the Canucks series, a stretch of seven games where forwards have scored four goals against a goalie. Take out Game 3 of this series and it’s just Mark Stone’s goal in Game 2.

The defense — mostly Shea Theodore — has carried much of the offensive burden, including Saturday when Alec Martinez scored on the power play for a 1-0 lead in the second period.

Through the 10-minute mark of the second period, the halfway point of the game, the Golden Knights led in shots on goal, 20-6, but had just the one goal to show for it.

And it stayed that way the remainder of the game, most notably during a late power-play in the third period when Vegas fired five shots on goal during a 5-on-3 advantage but couldn’t score.

“Forwards I think we’re trying to get to the net and seems like it’s a mad scramble and we’re not finding loose pucks,” Vegas winger Reilly Smith said. “As a forward group we’ve got to do a better job finding some of those pucks and scoring timely goals because we can’t rely on our defense to score every goal for us every single night.”

The lack of scoring isn’t just Golden Knights’ sticks going cold. Defending a late lead is the kind of game the Stars are built for.

They made it this far into the season by sticking to a defensive system that suffocates opponents’ chances and makes the clock feel like it’s moving at double time through the third period. They scored twice in the second half of the second period, then shifted into a prevent defense for the final 20 minutes.

In the final period, the Golden Knights mustered four shots on goal at even strength. In all situations, including the 5-on-3, Vegas had just three high-danger scoring chances in the third, according to Natural Stat Trick.

“They do a good job of protecting leads, they deny a lot of entries into the zone, clog up the neutral zone and pack it in their ‘D’ zone,” Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez said. “But we’ve got a find a way to get through that.”

Even when the Golden Knights broke through the defense, they ran into a wall dressed in green standing in the crease. Anton Khudobin led the NHL in save percentage during the regular season playing in a tandem role with Ben Bishop. With Bishop injured, it’s been Khudobin’s net this postseason, and he’s turned away 119 of the Golden Knights 125 shots, good for a .952 save percentage.

“Goals are going to be scored in the hard areas, and we know that,” Smith said. “It seems like the puck is bouncing every way but in the net, and we’ve just got to find a way to change that.”

Goals may be scored in the hard areas, but the Golden Knights had trouble getting there on Saturday. Martinez’s goal came from 54 feet out, one of 11 shots on goal from 50-plus feet.

The Stars’ goals meanwhile came from 16 and 13 feet from the net, and much better success shooting from that part of the ice, particularly at 5-on-5, evidenced by the below chart from natural Stat Trick.

Now the Golden Knights find themselves in the unenviable position of needing three wins in a row to keep their season alive. They have ever faced a 3-1 deficit just once, in the Stanley Cup Final in 2018, and lost Game 5. Twice the Golden Knights have given up a 3-1 lead to force a Game 7, including last round against the Canucks, and last season to the San Jose Sharks.

Those Sharks, of course, were coached by Peter DeBoer, now behind the Vegas bench. He said there’s no “magic pill” to come back, and it’s all about getting back to what worked in the early part of the season.

The problem is, the margin for error is nonexistent now. The Golden Knights aren’t going to blow up the game plan that brought them to the conference final, but they better hope the results improve.

“All we need is to finish. I think the effort’s there,” DeBoer said. “This is a long way from over and we’re going to be a tough out.”

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