Jason Franson / The Canadian Press via AP
Published Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 | 3:40 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020 | 6 a.m.
A soon as the penalty was called on the Vegas Golden Knights’ Ryan Reaves it was easy to draw the comparison and think the worst.
With Vegas dominating Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks but unable to score, Reaves was hit with a five-minute penalty at the end of the second period. Vancouver was struggling to produce scoring chances — it had less than 10 shots at this juncture — but with a man advantage for five minutes had a chance to escape with an unlikely playoff series win.
Of course, the last time Vegas was in a Game 7, it was also hit with a five-minute penalty, which led to a four-goal outburst from the Sharks and an overtime playoff exit. And just like this season, Vegas had a 3-1 series lead it slowly let slip way.
The good news for Vegas is the result was different this time.
The Golden Knights killed the penalty — which unlike the one last season was the correct call on Reaves’ illegal hit to the head on Canucks forward Tyler Motte — to keep the game scoreless, eventually paving the way for three Vegas goals in the final 6:08 for a 3-0 win and spot in the Western Conference Final. Vegas plays the Dallas Stars in Game 1 at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“Yeah, you’ve got to think it crossed our minds a little bit,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said of the five-minute penalty.
“Talking to (Reaves) after the game, he was a little nervous, too,” Marchessault added with a chuckle.
Even beyond Reaves’ infraction, Vegas’ penalty-killing was spectacular on Friday. The Golden Knights held the Canucks without a shot on their first two power plays, and allowed just one shot during the major.
In 11 minutes of short-handed time for the game, Vegas allowed two total shots. For the series, the Golden Knights held the Canucks, who had the fourth-best power play in the league during the regular season (24.2%), to just 3-for-27 (11.1%).
Both Brayden McNabb and Zach Whitecloud surpassed seven minutes of short-handed ice time, and were keys to the penalty-killing unit.
“I thought those two were the players of the game,” said Shea Theodore, who scored the game-winning goal for Vegas. “It’s a treat to watch them out there. They work hard and they get the job done.”
And it was on the other side of special teams that the Golden Knights finally solved Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko, who had stopped the last 98 Vegas shots. Five seconds into the power play, Theodore’s wrister dinged off the corner of the goalpost and into the net.
“It’s crazy,” Theodore said. “To finally break that tie, that’s huge and it’s a big one for our group.”
It was the Golden Knights’ first goal in 173:52 of game time since Game 5. Theodore also scored that goal. Alex Tuch added an empty-net goal with 2:06 in the third, and Paul Stastny added another with five seconds remaining.
Through the first 40 minutes, the Golden Knights had 52 shot attempts to just 19 for the Canucks. At the midpoint of the second period, the Canucks had three shots on goal.
Vegas finished with a 36-15 advantage in shots on goal. For the series, the Golden Knights outshot the Canucks 273-170. For perspective, Robin Lehner made 123 saves for Vegas in six games. Demko made 123 saves in three.
“We’re going to face adversity as a team, and that was as hard of adversity as we can face,” Marchessault said. “That goalie was just unbelievable.”
Speaking of Lehner, he recorded his third shutout of the series, playing on back-to-back nights and starting his third game in four nights and made Vegas’ biggest save of the night just past the midway point of the second. It was still 0-0, and the Golden Knights had done everything but score. Then Bo Horvat slid Brock Boeser the puck on a 2-on-1 that was earmarked for a goal.
Instead Lehner, who had committed to the right side of the crease to take away Horvat’s shot, slid all the way across the crease and robbed Boeser with the glove, turning in the most acrobatic save as a Golden Knight.
“I know you say I can’t save back-door shots, but big man can move when he wants to,” Lehner said.
It wasn’t just the save that was spectacular, it was the implications that would have followed had the shot gone in. In the previous two games, the Canucks withstood a Vegas siege just long enough to score and take the lead and win the game. Had Lehner not made that save, the Canucks, who were trailing in shots 15-3, would have had the lead and Vegas wouldn’t be able to help thinking that this might just happen again.
“I can’t tell you how hard a game it is for a goalie to play when you’re not getting any action, your team’s peppering the other team, both in possession and shots and you’re waiting,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “That game could have easily swung like it did (in Game 6) when we didn’t get the first goal or the second goal.”
DeBoer, who became the first coach in NHL history to win his first five appearances in a Game 7, knows a thing or two about how quickly the tide can turn in a winner-take-all contest. He, of course, was the coach of the San Jose Sharks last season when a Vegas major penalty led to four Sharks goals in the five minutes.
“Yeah, now that you bring it up, five-minute major right? Penalty-killing in a Game 7,” DeBoer said laughing. “That’s familiar I’m sure.”
The Golden Knights won’t have much time to rest, with Game 1 of the next round beginning on Sunday against Dallas, who defeated Colorado in overtime of Game 7 in the other semifinal earlier in the day.
Dallas is for the weekend. Friday night is for celebrating the win against the Canucks.
The Golden Knights not only won a Game 7 for the first time in their three-year history, they did it in what was the only possible way. They beat the Canucks, they beat the goalie who had tormented them and they beat the five-minute penalty.
Focus will soon shift to the Stars. But not too soon.
“I need a drink after the last three games before I think about Dallas,” DeBoer said with a grin. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”