Beat the forecheck
When people think about the Vegas Golden Knights, they think fast. They think transition. They think counterattack. That’s all accurate.
But there’s something else they’re fast at.
“They’re a heavy forecheck team,” Micheal Haley said.
“They chip a lot of pucks in. They’re quick,” Logan Couture pointed out. “They’re not overly physical, take away that fourth line. They’ve got really good sticks and they strip pucks.”
How can the San Jose Sharks respond?
“It’s on us as forwards to give our D time for our D-men to break out cleanly,” Couture explained. “Screen their forwards. Do a good job working back. Creates time.”
Of course, “screen” is another word for “pick.”
Brayden McNabb (3) dumped it in. Valentin Zykov (7) intended to get in on the forecheck, but Evander Kane (9) got in the way. Honestly, the referees could’ve whistled Kane for interference, but to his credit, he sold the “accidental” collision well.
Little plays like this give Sharks defensemen valuable time with the puck.
Speaking for the defense, Justin Braun added, “Just working back hard. Making as many clean plays as we can.”
But beating the Golden Knights forecheck will be a team effort.
“Forwards coming back, supporting us. We’re going to need five guys to get pucks out of the zone,” continued Braun. “It’s not going to be just over and chip out. It’s going to be battle it, D, battle it to the next guy, center picks it up.”
The “pick” play
“They do those subtle picks more than any other team in the league,” Nate Schmidt told me before the Vegas-San Jose series last year.
After losing Game 4, Gerard Gallant and Jonathan Marchessault railed against such plays:
Gallant, on #SJSharks "pick" plays: "You guys saw the play. That's all I'm going to say."— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 3, 2018
In Game 5, Colin Miller (6) drew an interference call on Tomas Hertl (48).
Talking picks, not licks here:— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) May 5, 2018
* Did #SJSharks abandon pick after Hertl penalty?
* How Karlsson on Karlsson crime & 8 straight passes beat SJS PK
* When your 3rd line can do 1st-line things
* Watch Miller play forward!
Read all about #VegasBorn win here: https://t.co/rjqS13nb2K pic.twitter.com/NNN7K3ummd
This led to a Vegas power play goal and contributed to their Game 5 victory.
“I didn’t think it was a penalty,” DeBoer indicated post-game. “I’m a little speechless about it. We’ve got to move on and deal with it better.”
It’s worth noting there are very different types of picks.
This is a clear-cut penalty from a regular season contest last year.
This was whistled down too, but borderline.
These are completely legal, excellent hockey plays:
Meier acknowledged the pick that Burns set for him on #SJSharks 1st goal: "Great play by Logan to win that faceoff clean. Burnzie kind of running interference for me there to shoot. Great net-front presence by the guys." pic.twitter.com/lR6xvpTMgz— Sheng Peng (@Sheng_Peng) December 14, 2018
Yesterday, DeBoer took aim, “It became an issue [last year] because they complained about them. That’s on the referees and the supervisors ... for me, the biggest thing is not changing the standard. We’ve been a clean team all year, one of the least penalized teams. As long as the standard doesn’t change in the playoffs, I don’t think it’s an issue.”
Interestingly, the stats might support DeBoer’s case. The Sharks were called for 19 interferences this year, tied for 26th in the NHL. The Lightning actually led the league with 38 interference minors. Believe it or not, Tampa Bay was the most-penalized team in the NHL.
While interference penalties aren’t all picks, the data suggests that San Jose uses fewer illegal picks than believed. They certainly run a lot of screens though, and the legality of them will probably be a hot topic in this series once again.
Vegas goes high, San Jose goes low
After beating Vegas at the end of March, DeBoer pointed out, “They play our defensemen high.”
There’s good reason for it. At that point of the season, besides the New York Islanders, no other team featured defensemen taking a higher percentage of the team’s overall shot attempts at 5-on-5 than San Jose:
Here are some examples of how the Knights tried to take away Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson in January.
Karlsson (65) appeared open, but a waiting Oscar Lindberg (24) was able to get in front of Karlsson with ease.
Both Max Pacioretty (67) and William Karlsson (71) closed on Burns along the half-wall, forcing a quicker decision.
Ryan Reaves finished back-to-back checks on Karlsson.
Indeed, it’s unusual to see the point defended so aggressively.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, while referring to taking away Burns on the power play, might as well have been talking about defending Burns and Karlsson at 5-on-5: “If you make a shooter pass the puck, you’ve already done maybe 50 percent of the job.”
That’s the Golden Knights’ philosophy. What do the Sharks say to that?
“If they are going to go stand beside our defensemen up high, then the forwards down low are going to have to take advantage of that space,” noted DeBoer.
Even more so than last season, San Jose forwards are equipped to take advantage. Tomas Hertl and Timo Meier have enjoyed breakout campaigns. Unlike last year, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski are healthy.
There are other ways to take advantage of this aggressiveness.
Meier (28) had the puck in the corner. Pacioretty, more worried about the point, turned his head twice to make sure he knew where Burns was.
In what might have been a set play, but was at least a fascinating bit of creativity, Meier dragged his defender (Shea Theodore, 27) toward the blueline, rimming the puck back down low at the last possible second. Both Meier and Burns left the zone, drawing Theodore and Pacioretty out too.
Couture (39) picked the puck up along the half-wall. Burns and Meier re-entered the zone, a step ahead of their checkers. This looked potentially dangerous.
Nothing came of this, but for a split second, the Sharks held an edge.
The Golden Knights’ new first line
The Marchessault, Karlsson, and Reilly Smith line has dropped 57 points in 16 regular season and playoff games on San Jose.
But Vegas might have a scarier trio now in the form of Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty.
“Complete line. Stastny, great on draws. Pacioretty, fast, goal scorer. Stone is an impact player with or without the puck,” Brenden Dillon indicated. “They’re busy holding the puck, controlling the puck, making plays.”
For DeBoer, the most underrated member of this group drew his praise: “You have a center like Stastny, who has the ability to make other people better, can distribute the puck. He brings out the best from his wingers.”
“They’re deeper offensively than they were a year ago,” he added.
A quiet Goose
On a star-studded Sharks side, Gustav Nyquist is certainly flying under the radar. However, Nyquist has just eight points in 35 post-season appearances.
What has Nyquist learned from his prior playoff experience?
“I learned how tight playoff hockey is. You have to fight for every inch of the ice. Every game’s a battle. Every series’s a battle,” Nyquist said. “You gotta be ready from the start, know it’s going to be a grind. It’s just a fun time to play hockey.”
We’ll see if Nyquist can finally assert himself on this stage.