Defencemen dominated the headlines after Game 1 between the Montreal Canadiens and Vegas Golden Knights -- in the best way possible for Vegas and in the worst way for Montreal. The Golden Knights' blue line combined for three goals and six points en route to a 4-1 win. Montreal’s defencemen contributed to the score as well, but in a much less favourable way.
The stark contrast in performance from each team's blue line only magnified the absence of Montreal’s most versatile and best defenceman, Jeff Petry. Petry affects the game in several positive ways for the Canadiens, and without him on the ice in Game 1, additional minutes were forced on bottom-pairing defenders who showed they were not capable of handling an elevated role.
As referenced in our series preview, escaping the Golden Knights forecheck and furious puck pursuit was going to be a key for the Canadiens in this series. Petry is a smooth skater who leads all Canadiens defencemen and ranks 14th overall in controlled zone exits, averaging 4.8 per game. Petry also ranks top-10 among defencemen in controlled entries, averaging 1.9 per game.
When it comes to skating the puck out, through the neutral zone, and into the offensive zone, Nick Leddy is the only defenceman who has done it more than Petry in the playoffs. Petry’s escapability and skating ability were sorely missed on Monday night, and you don’t have to look any further than the sequence of events that led to Vegas’s first goal of the game to see why.
Midway through the first period, Erik Gustafsson, who was taking a shift with Ben Chiarot, double-clutched on what appeared to be a simple zone exit. Gustafsson panicked for a split second and that set into motion the events that would ultimately lead to a goal-against.
Off the Gustafsson turnover, Vegas regained offensive-zone puck possession before pressuring Chiarot into an icing call. On the ensuing face-off, Shea Theodore ripped a shot past Carey Price to give the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead.
Vegas defencemen one, Canadiens defencemen zero.
With the score 2-1 in the second period, Vegas scored off yet another offensive zone face-off win. Brett Kulak was unable to tie up Mattias Janmark in front of the Canadiens net as Janmark got stick position at the far post to put the Golden Knights up by a pair.
This was one of two goals the Canadiens' makeshift pairing of Kulak and Alexander Romanov was on the ice for in Game 1. With Petry out of the line-up, it was Kulak and Romanov who saw the biggest spikes in ice-time with Kulak playing just over four minutes more than he averaged prior in Game 1, while Romanov’s ice-time rose by nearly six minutes.
Romanov had some flashes of fine play in the game, but this pairing proved it could not handle the additional minutes it was forced to play in Petry’s absence. In Kulak and Romanov’s 7:30 of ice-time together at even-strength, the Canadiens were out-chanced 5-0 by the Golden Knights and outscored 2-0. The pairing finished with an expected-goals-for percentage of 1.5 per cent. Yes, you read that correctly: 1.5 per cent. To say Petry’s nearly 24 minutes per night on the Canadiens' second pair was sorely missed in Game 1 would be a massive understatement.
Dominique Ducharme did his best to match his top defence pair of Chiarot and Shea Weber against Vegas’s top two lines, but without last change the Canadiens were forced into less-than-desirable match-ups that cost them in critical moments. It’s impossible to say whether Petry would have successfully exited the zone if he were on the ice instead of Gustafsson at that moment, or if Petry would have done a better job boxing out Janmark if it were him on the ice instead of Kulak. What we do know is that Petry is Montreal’s best option on the back end in a wide variety of areas, including possessing the puck and moving it out of harm's way.
Petry’s status for Game 2 is still up in the air as he’s expected to be a game-time decision. At his media availability this morning, Ducharme said of Petry’s availability, “If he's in uniform, it's because he's very close to be ready to do what he needs to do with the puck. So, he'll be close to 100 per cent.”
So much of what makes Petry effective on the ice has to do with his hands and stickhandling ability, which is also what makes forecasting the kind of impact he could have in Game 2 so difficult. Based on Ducharme’s comments, it sounds like if Petry does play it will be because his hand is in good enough shape to allow him to handle the puck in the way we are accustomed to seeing.
Even if he’s less than 100 per cent, at the very least Petry’s presence would mean fewer minutes for defencemen like Gustafsson and Kulak, who showed they need to be sheltered as much as possible. If Petry is unable to play, perhaps Ducharme will look to bump Weber and Chiarot’s ice-time even higher than the 25-plus minutes each played in Game 1.
What we do know for sure is the Golden Knights defence outplayed the Canadiens by about as wide a margin as one could imagine in the opening game of the series. Vegas’s D combined for 18 shots on goal and six points. Montreal’s D, zero shots, zero points.
Petry won’t be able to make up that difference on his own, but if he can go on Wednesday night, it will certainly help close the gap as the Canadiens look to avoid flying home down two games to none.