For the San Jose Sharks, the plan all came together last night.
At Monday’s practice, Peter DeBoer appeared to place a heavy emphasis on beating the opposition’s forecheck via quick feet and puck movement. This was a likely response against the vaunted Vegas Golden Knights forecheck.
From the beginning of last night’s 5-2 Game 1 victory over Vegas, San Jose practiced what they preached.
The Golden Knights will often send two forecheckers to blunt the breakout.
Going back to the corner, Brent Burns (88) braced for Tomas Nosek (92). Joe Pavelski (8) went low to help out, chased by Alex Tuch (89).
Critically, Marc-Edouard Vlasic (44) stood apart, the third-man option for the two-on-two that Burns and Pavelski were fighting. With a little more time and space at his disposal, Vlasic was able to survey his options.
His wings (Timo Meier, Logan Couture) well covered, Vlasic rainbowed a deft 200-foot area pass which died before icing. This allowed Meier and Couture to forecheck, also putting the puck at the other end.
It was rinse and repeat seconds later.
Vlasic beat William Carrier (28) to the puck, touching it to Burns in the corner. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) screamed in on Burns, who appeared to be at a disadvantage because his back was turned and he was on his backhand. But this time, Melker Karlsson (68) came down low to support. Burns hit him with a gorgeous no-look backhand.
Karlsson, seeing Barclay Goodrow (23) behind the defense, dumped it in from 200 feet. Once again, the Golden Knights forecheck was stymied and the puck was at the other end.
On Monday, Justin Braun talked about how to beat the Vegas forecheck. These plays checked off every box:
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.”
“We were chipping pucks in, we just had guys going the wrong direction. We weren’t all on the same page,” Reilly Smith explained. “It was easy to beat our forecheck last night. We have to work better as a five-man group, instead of just the first guy going in there really fast.”
Alex Tuch added, “We have to forecheck more as a five-man unit. Puck placement and chips and just getting on their D faster. Not allowing them to make the first play or flip the puck out.”
At the other end, the Sharks were able to assert their own forecheck. Here’s one minute and two line changes that changed the game:
A tape-to-tape Erik Karlsson (65) stretch pass to Marcus Sorensen (20) got it started (00:05). Karlsson pinched, Kevin Labanc (62) supported, preventing an easy Vegas exit (00:10). Joe Thornton (19) held the puck and rimmed it the other way (00:15). Melker Karlsson, jumping off the bench, picked it up (00:20). Thornton and Karlsson played a little two-man game behind the net, but the Knights were able to recover the puck. Jon Merrill (15) fired a pass to Ryan Reaves (75) but Braun pinched successfully (00:32).
Puck back in the corner, Barclay Goodrow (23) lined up Merrill, forcing a turnover (00:43). Micheal Haley (18) had a good chance. Reaves once again tried to exit, but a Karlsson stick turned the puck around (00:45). Goodrow and Haley double-teamed Bellemare behind the net, winning the puck (00:52). “It is a war down there,” Randy Hahn exclaimed on the broadcast. San Jose was able to get a cycle going. Goodrow fired it at the net (1:00), and on the ensuing rebound, Merrill tripped Haley.
The Sharks would score a key power play goal because of Haley and company’s work.
“It felt like we were able to play in their end a little bit,” said Joe Pavelski, who scored the power play goal off his face. “Definitely, guys hung in there, won some battles.”
San Jose never looked back.
Haley admitted that it was the team’s most complete game in almost a month, “That was a good game for us as a group. But like you said, it was one game. We got to keep it rolling.”
DeBoer has noted before that the team’s defense starts at the other end, forechecking and making it difficult for the opposition to leave the zone. Basically, good offense begets good defense.
“I thought our team defense tonight was tight,” DeBoer said. “That’s going to be a formula for us in the playoffs. The goals take care of itself. I’m not worried about the offense, we can score.”
On the other side, Gallant felt San Jose took a page out of his team’s book: “They came out, they were physical, they forechecked real good. That’s more of our game. They can do that real well. We didn’t do enough of that last night.
“They spent too much time in your zone against your D, anybody’s going to be successful against you. They spent too much time there in the first two periods in our zone. We didn’t get the exits as much as we usually do.”