Looking at how Vegas’s speed, transition have dominated the Jets

The panel discusses how crucial it is to roll four lines this late in the playoffs, when the big lines of the Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights have been facing tough matchups, forgiveness is sometimes necessary.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard for the Winnipeg Jets against an expansion team in the Western Conference final.

When the Manitobans played the Presidents’ Trophy winners and last year’s Western representatives in the Stanley Cup final, Nashville, in Round 2, many viewed that as the real conference final. After all, those were the two best teams from the conference by points in the regular season and, on paper at least, had the most complete and deep rosters.

It looked like it would play out that way when Winnipeg crushed Vegas in Game 1. By the time the Jets had scored three first-period goals, the Golden Knights had only three shots on net total. Winnipeg had outshot Vegas 22-13 through two periods and the Golden Knights never got to within one goal. This was how the series was expected to go.

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But, as we know, Vegas now holds a 2-1 series advantage and the team has been far from just lucky. We’ve heard for the past few months how Vegas’s strength is its speed, transition and the ferocity with which it forechecks. These attributes were apparent in Games 2 and 3 and have helped the Golden Knights overcome a 1-for-7 power-play.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by how Vegas has beaten Winnipeg because they’ve done this all season long, including the first two rounds of these playoffs.

What does that look like against a team that was supposed to beat them? Here is each of Vegas’s goals over the past two games, minus the one empty-netter.

GAME 2

Goal 1, 13:23 into the first
So many of these goals you are about to see are defensive breakdowns by the Jets, most of which are created by intense pressure put on by the Golden Knights. The other three things to keep in mind is how good Vegas is at finding and getting to the open ice, how well they support each other on the puck, and how they get sticks on everything — something frustrated players of EA’s NHL ’18 can relate to.

On this goal, the Jets have numbers on their side the entire time. Paul Stastny goes to play the puck behind Winnipeg’s net and is supported by Ben Chiarot, who was available to take the pass on the open side. But Vegas’s Tomas Tatar is on Stastny immediately, and cuts off the pass behind the net. The Jets forward falls and the puck goes to Ryan Carpenter, who has moved off his check from Dustin Byfuglien and into the corner. Carpenter doesn’t have much time before Byfuglien is on top of him again — the Jets aren’t destined to give up a goal yet.

 
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But as the play breaks down for Winnipeg and Vegas gains control, winger Patrik Laine doesn’t adapt quick enough. Carpenter immediately finds a wide-open Shea Theodore in the middle of the ice, which would have been a fine enough place to get a shot from. You can see Laine doesn’t really know where his check is, because as Carpenter goes to make a play, for a split second Laine moves his stick towards the boards to cut off a pass that was never there.

Now that Laine’s man is open, Chiarot leaves the front of the net to challenge the Theodore shot, and Tatar is wide open to come out from the other side of the net. Theodore makes the pass for the higher quality shot and Tatar has so much time he not only gets a crease-area one-timer, but a second opportunity off the boards following Hellebuyck’s great save.

At the time Theodore receives the puck, the Jets have all five of their players from the top of the circle down, whereas the Golden Knights have just three. But because the Vegas players are always moving, there’s an open player at every step of this broken play. By the time Tatar scores, neither of the Jets blue-liners are within even five feet of him. The only guy trying to make a desperation stop (besides the goalie) is forward Stastny, who had previously fallen over. One misstep kept leading to another and Vegas goes up 1-0.

Goal 2, 17:22 into the first period
A whole bunch of things go wrong here for the Jets. Winger Kyle Connor has received some heat for not getting the puck at least past the defenders here, but the other four Jets on the ice deserve just as much or more of the blame.

From the second Connor receives the flip-out pass, Vegas defenceman Nate Schmidt has a stick on it so he can’t move cleanly through the neutral zone. None of the Jets have started to change yet and at least one of them had to identify that Connor needed active support. On top of Schmidt pressuring Connor with his stick, Reilly Smith is already giving back pressure and actually creates the turnover. He just throws the puck back the other way, where two Golden Knights are waiting.

The closest Jet to Connor as he’s battling is Bryan Little, but when Vegas creates the turnover, he glides off to the bench to change. The problem, of course, is that every Jet did the same thing. As the puck goes the other way, Byfuglien even turns his back to the play and moves to the bench, then realizes the left-side defender — on whose side the puck is now moving — has already gotten there, leaving a wide-open gap. The puck never got to the red line. The Jets assumed the puck would get in, and changed prematurely.

Again, Winnipeg goes from having the numbers to a complete defensive breakdown. At the time Connor has the puck, the Jets have four players behind him. But a split second later, Vegas is going in on Hellebuyck with a 2-on-0.

Goal 3, 8:45 into the third period
Here, Winnipeg has just made a game of it. Only 1:28 before this goal, Connor scored on the power play (a lucky bad-angle shot, by the way) to cut Vegas’s lead to just one. There’s still more than half a period left, so we’re not in desperation mode yet.

At first, the Jets have an opportunity to get control, or at least send the puck behind the net. But Adam Lowry is first knocked off balance by William Karlsson, who is immediately supported by Smith. The Jets didn’t commit any bad line change or unforgivable (at first) defensive breakdown here. This goal epitomizes why Vegas’s transition game is always talked about.

Smith gets it and puts it to the open ice in the direction of Karlsson. Both players who were integral to the defensive side of this play are now filling the same crucial role on offence. Karlsson dashes to the puck and Reilly, who started moving up ice the second he got rid of the puck, is now open and moving with speed through the middle of the neutral zone. No Jet stayed with him. Karlsson barely beats the Winnipeg defender and just gets a stick on it, moving it to the middle where he knows Smith will be.

Even here it’s not a given Vegas will score. They have a 2-on-1, but Joel Armia is close enough to Smith that he’s putting a stick on him and giving pressure. Josh Morrissey is the only defenceman back after his partner’s pinch and, rather than stay in the middle of the ice to cut the pass as Don Cherry preaches, he makes a desperation dive to attack the shooter, leaving Vegas’s most dangerous player, Jonathan Marchessault, wide open.

It doesn’t look like Morrissey ever checks behind him to see Marchessault coming down the opposite side and no other Jet is close to challenge Marchessault. Two Jets attack the guy with the puck and, again despite having numbers to defend, Vegas ends up with a wide-open opportunity in the end. Hellebuyck had no chance. This made it 3-1 and the Golden Knights evened the series.

GAME 3

Remember in Game 1 when Winnipeg started so strong that Vegas was never really in it? Vegas got off to the quicker start in Game 2 and, in Game 3, were even better off the hop.

Goal 1, 35 seconds into the first period
This starts off a Jets opportunity. Uber-talented Mark Scheifele is trying to create a rush and get the puck over to his winger. It’s not a bad play and certainly better than a throw-away dump-in from the top line. But Brayden McNabb gets his stick on it, and just throws it up ice the other way.

This goal comes off another play where the Jets were attempting a change, but when you get right down to it, the goal is created by Marchessault’s speed. We’re a little more than 30 seconds into the game at this point and the Jets defenders are moving to the bench to get fresh legs out. As the puck comes the other way, Trouba tries to recollect himself, but he’s already been beaten by Marchessault.

This was another goal created off defence, but it’s not as nifty and direct as the goal above. McNabb is simply breaking up Scheifele trying to create an opportunity and Winnipeg’s blue-liners have started to change before their team cleanly has the zone. Most teams and players may not have the speed to turn this into a goal, but this is what Vegas is known for. Winnipeg, clearly, needs to be more careful with its changes.

Goal 2, 5:40 into the second period
This, perhaps, is the luckiest goal Vegas got, but we can’t scoff at Erik Haula’s stick skill to be able to knock down Hellebuyck’s weak backhand play up the boards. And it’s not all on Hellebuyck, he had to go up that side of the boards because if you look at the other side, you’ll notice Vegas’s James Neal is the low man and there’s no Jet near him. When the puck is behind your own net and the other team is pressuring, defence needs to be the priority, not the break out.

Tyler Myers has got caught up ice supporting his player and as his partner goes behind the net to support his goalie making the play, No. 13 Brandon Tanev doesn’t cover low enough. So when the play breaks down off the goalie’s stick, Neal just slides unchecked to the front of the net for an easy goal.

Again it’s a hard forecheck that forces a turnover. Winnipeg doesn’t adapt fast enough and completely disregards the second forechecker on the right side.

Goal 3, 8:13 into the second period
With a 2-1 lead in the game, this one is still up for grabs and the Jets have bounced back from a terrible first period in which they got just three shots on goal. This goal, the game-winner, again came off speed created by Vegas and weak defence from the Jets.

Neal is streaking down the ice with the puck, but Winnipeg is still in good position. Both defencemen are back and two forwards are there to support. Some teams may look at this situation and dump it in.

Not Vegas. Neal goes for the controlled zone entry and Tobias Enstrom, though cutting off the middle of the ice, leaves the board wide open and musters only a weak stick check, barely getting any of his body on Neal. The Vegas forward then blows into the zone and his team has a 2-on-1.

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This time the defender, Byfuglien, rightly stays in the middle to cut off the pass. He forces Neal to shoot, but it’s not from a great angle and Hellebuyck makes an easy save. But Neal is moving with such great speed he’s able to quickly pick the puck back up and carry it around behind the net with his momentum. Byfuglien is still doing a good job covering his man.

There should have been enough Jets back to prevent this goal. As Neal comes out the other side, Winnipeg yet again has more players back than Vegas has up — the Jets have four players around the crease and Vegas has three, two of which are in no position to score. But the trailer, Alex Tuch, comes in behind everyone who is staring at the puck, finds open ice in the slot and buries Neal’s pass.

This again shows Vegas’s speed. Not once does Neal slow down. It’s one fluid movement down the ice and behind the net. Even Tuch is hit with the pass in motion, as he moves away from Connor on the right side of the slot.

How can Winnipeg change their fortunes? For one, the Jets need to get on the board first because the momentum they got in the first period of Game 1 carried them to that win. Winnipeg can’t be changing on the fly until the puck is deep or in full control in the offensive zone, leaving nothing to chance. And the forwards need to do a better job covering for the defenders, with their heads on a swivel and constantly aware that Vegas’s main strength is its movement. If you see a Golden Knights attacker in one spot at one moment, you can be sure that player won’t be in the same spot the next.

Which team is actually the luckier one through three games? As you see, each of Vegas’s goals have been opportunistic, created off defensive breakdowns and mistakes. But those mistakes aren’t just coming out of nowhere for the Jets — Vegas is creating so many of them with speed, sticks and constant pressure.

Winnipeg, meanwhile, has gotten some lucky goals lately. Scheifele’s first goal in Game 3 was a crazy goal-line redirect off a shot in the corner. Their only goal in Game 2 was a similar bad-angle shot that slipped between Marc-Andre Fleury and the post. And in Game 7 versus Nashville, Pekka Rinne’s terrible game handed Winnipeg the win. Vegas, on the other hand, has created its own luck.

While goals are on the rise and speed takes over the NHL, it’s still not wrong to say defence wins championships. It’s just that now, instead of shutting down shots and winning games 1-0 or 2-1, the key is to check hard and turn defence into offence quickly in transition.

This is what Vegas excels at, and this is how it looks against the team that started Round 3 as the Stanley Cup favourites of many.

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