EDMONTON — Pete DeBoer’s Vegas Golden Knights are 5-0 in Edmonton and have not lost a hockey game since March 6. His goalie, Robin Lehner, is 7-0 since coming over from the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline, and even if DeBoer had to use his backup, that player’s name is Marc-Andre Fleury.
Even for a National Hockey League coach, a group of guys who can find a flaw in a hole-in-one or a 29 hand in crib, it must be getting difficult for DeBoer to find things to improve on with his team.
“It’s not hard,” DeBoer smiled, after a 4-3 overtime win that puts Vegas ahead 2-0 in its Round 1 series against the Chicago Blackhawks. “You can ask our group. We lit into them pretty good after the last game about some of our play in the neutral zone. Some of our decisions. But our group is really open to constructive criticism. You never play a perfect game, and we didn’t tonight.”
“At same time,” he added, “you’ve got to take your hat off to them. They find ways to win every night, and there’s a feeling on that bench that, regardless of the situation, they’re going to find a way to win.”
No one in this tournament is more confident than these Golden Knights, who count 13 different scorers that have scored 23 times in Edmonton. Reilly Smith had two in Game 1 of this series, then zipped the winner past Corey Crawford at 7:13 of the first OT session, Smith’s fifth shot of the game.
It was one of those goals that you could feel was coming, the way the ground rumbles as a train pulls into the station.
“It started the shift before that,” said Smith, who watched the line of Nick Cousins, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch tire out the Jonathan Toews line before changing. “All five guys cycled the puck, kinda hemmed them in their zone. Then Cousins delayed, created some time for me and (Paul) Stastny to get in. Paul made a good pass and it went in off my stick.”
The Chicago Blackhawks haven’t held a lead in this series, and with back to back games set for Saturday and Sunday, they’re going to need a weekend’s work to avoid a sweep. They did come from behind Thursday, erasing a 2-0 deficit, and Dylan Strome hit a crossbar in the extra session.
But they’re down 2-0 no matter how you slice it. Saturday is must-win territory for the Blackhawks.
“It’s a different team than Edmonton was,” said young Kirby Dach, who scored his first-ever playoff goal in this game. “They come at you in waves, but we did a good job of weathering the storm. They’re good at collapsing down low. Once we find our groove, we’ll be OK as a group. But it’s tough to swallow. We had chances in overtime to put the game away, but it didn’t happen that way.”
Patrick Kane had three assists, but Vegas D-man Shea Theodore was plus-four on the night.
Max Pacioretty, who came up to Edmonton late and played in Game 1 of the series, did not dress for Game 2. He was said to be “unfit to play.”
Lehner, meanwhile, has stolen the No. 1 job from Fleury, a development that nobody saw coming when the Golden Knights brought him in from Chicago at the trade deadline.
“Coming into this group, it’s a very tight-knit group,” Lehner said. “Everyone buys into the system and does the right things, and in the long run you get rewarded. Letting in a goal, there’s no panic. Letting in two goals… You trust your team, that we can come back. It’s a very well structured team here and a lot of skill at the same time.”
Vegas was less dominant in Game 2 than they had been in their 4-1 Game 1 victory. But they won anyhow, a sign of a team that does not need to follow the same script every night.
“When we’re playing our game we can win different ways,” said Stastny. “When Pete came in it brought a new sense of life into us. It seemed like we spent less time in D-zone, found different ways to win. Since training camp opened up, he instilled in us to get back to what made us good. There aren’t a lot of teams that can play our style for 60 minutes.”
Not in this series, anyhow.
“I thought we were playing really well the first two periods,” offered Kane, “and for whatever reason it just seemed that they came out better than us in the third.”
For whatever reason.
The Blackhawks had better start figuring out some answers, or this will be their last weekend in the Edmonton bubble.