Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer has a saying about playoff hockey: At this time of the season, a team’s best players need to be their best players.
He has to be pleased with what he’s seen from Vegas’ top players through the initial two rounds of the playoffs.
In this series against Colorado alone, Jonathan Marchessault leads the way with five goals, regular season goals leader Max Pacioretty has a pair of game-winners, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed just eight goals, and captain Mark Stone put Vegas ahead 3-2 in the series with the overtime breakaway on Tuesday.
The Golden Knights have a chance to eliminate Colorado in Game 6 at 6 p.m. tonight at T-Mobile Arena in large part because their stars are outshining those of the Avalanche.
“It’s everything. If they’re not, you’re not in a position to upset Colorado with the team they’ve got,” DeBoer said. “We knew that we were going to have to be at the top of our game in all areas, and I think the guys have done a good job and have put us in a spot where we’ve got a chance to win this.”
Of the Golden Knights’ 14 goals against the Avalanche, 13 have come from players even the most casual Vegas hockey fan will recognize: Marchessault (5), Pacioretty (2), William Karlsson (2) and Stone, Alex Tuch, Reilly Smith and Alec Martinez (1 each). Patrick Brown is the only player not in Vegas’ usual rotation with a goal this series.
It’s not that the Avalanche aren’t scoring, because they’ve outscored Vegas 15-14 in the series. But seven of those goals came in Game 1, and they’ve scored just five times in the last three games. In those games, their four leading goal-scorers from the regular season — Mikko Rantanen (with 30 regular season goals), Nathan MacKinnon (20), Gabriel Landeskog (20) and Andre Burakovsky — have one goal since the series moved to Vegas for Game 3.
The Golden Knights’ leading scorers — Pacioretty (24 regular season goals), Stone (21), Marchessault (18) and Tuch (18) — have nine.
“You need everyone to contribute to win games, but when these guys are putting up the big goals, the big points for our team, it’s huge for us,” Fleury said. “You see on the scoresheet — the goals they score and the assists, the points they get — but the work that they do against the other team in our ‘D’ zone to prevent scoring chances from the big guys on the other side too, it’s huge. It’s a big part of our team, big part of our wins and they’ve been doing that night in and night out.”
The defense has also done its part.
Shea Theodore has spent much of the series defending the Avalanche’s top line, and is a big reason, along with partner Brayden McNabb, why those players can’t get going. Alex Pietrangelo played perhaps his best hockey of the series in the Game 5 victory, and Martinez picked up where he left off in the regular season to lead the NHL with 43 blocked shots this postseason.
And Fleury has been mostly solid in net.
After letting a cheap goal in the final seconds on the first period on Tuesday, he responded by allowing one goal over the final two-plus periods, including a pair of key saves in overtime that could have ended to game with Vegas the loser.
“I felt bad. It’s not fun for sure. I just felt stupid,” Fleury said of the first period goal. “I think maybe when I was younger this would have maybe drove me off a bit more, but I’ve been around for a little bit. The guys had my back coming to the locker room and it felt nice. Just trying my best to keep the game close and always believe with this group that we can come back in games, and we did in a big way.”
Just about every top Vegas player rebounded from a rough start to the series to put the President’s Trophy-winning Avalanche one loss from another disappointing second-round exit.
The Golden Knights, meanwhile, are one win away from the NHL’s final four for the second year in a row and third time in four years as a franchise. Another one of DeBoer’s favorite sayings is that the fourth win in a series is the hardest to get. They’ll need their best players to turn in another strong performance to finish off the Avalanche tonight.