Published Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 | 2:38 a.m.
Updated Monday, Sept. 7, 2020 | 4:13 a.m.
The Golden Knights found out quickly on Sunday that the Western Conference Final won’t be anything like their previous two series in the postseason.
The Golden Knights manhandled the Blackhawks and Canucks in the initial rounds of the playoffs, but the Dallas Stars pressured, forechecked and possessed the puck better than two previous opponents in the series opener. The Golden Knights had no answers in Game 1 of the best-of-seven game series, falling 1-0 at Rogers Place in Edmonton.
“This is going to be a different series. We haven’t played the best defensive team or one of the top two defensive teams in the league yet,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “We’re going to have to get our head around that and find a way to create offense. It’s not going to look or feel like the Chicago series or the Vancouver series.”
The Golden Knights had their worst offensive performance of the postseason, registering playoff-lows in shots on goal and scoring chances. It wasn’t like the series against Vancouver, where Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko stopped everything the Golden Knights fired in his direction. Vegas had 25 shots on goal, but Dallas goalie Anton Khudobin was rarely challenged in recording the shutout.
“We know that we have to be a lot better from the start of the game,” Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “That’s being engaged physically, mentally from the drop of the puck and be a lot better than we were tonight.”
Regardless of whether it was the goalie or the defense in front of him, the fact remains that Vegas has scored once against a goalie in its last 10 periods of hockey, and has fired 125 shots at the net with one lighting the lamp.
The Stars shut the Golden Knights out on Sunday as the Canucks did in Game 6, but the Stars did it in a way that is much more sustainable, by possessing the puck and physically taking it away from the Golden Knights instead of waiting for a mistake to come off their sticks.
It felt like every time Dallas entered the attacking zone it was able to get a decent look at Marc-Andre Fleury, who allowed a goal on the first shot he faced but responded by turning away the next 24. The Stars were a heavier, faster, quite simply better team than Vegas, particularly in the first two periods.
Through 40 minutes, the Golden Knights had 12 shots on goal, including four in the second period that matched a franchise record for fewest in a period. Vegas finished with 16 scoring chances for the game after averaging nearly 35 in the previous 15 games, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Vegas showed signs of life in the third, but by then it was too late. Nine of the 16 scoring chances came in the final period, but with the Stars defending a late lead, they were happy to run out the clock without much offensive push. Dallas improved to 6-1 these playoffs when leading after two periods.
“Tonight it took us too long to get into the game,” Schmidt said. “Took us too long to get that energy, that fire, that bravado that you need to play in these type of games. You’re in the final four. Every team is good.”
The Stars are definitely good.
They rely on a slow defensive game that has given teams fits for years. During the regular season, the Dallas allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference while scoring the second-fewest, opting for closely-contested wins such as Sunday night.
The Golden Knights ran over Chicago and Vancouver, two young, quick teams who tried to trade chances and score off the rush. The Golden Knights outmatched those two teams. They’ve met their match in the Stars.
That’s not to say the Golden Knights are done by any means. Remember they lost Game of the Western Conference Final in 2018 against the Jets, and responded by winning four in a row.
“I have so much confidence in this team and the way we play,” Fleury said. “I’m not too worried about it. We’ll be fine.”