EDMONTON — It’s one thing to fix what’s broken.
It’s quite another for the Vegas Golden Knights, who are winning in every statistical category of this Western Conference Final other than the one that matters most, to fix a dominant game that does everything but score.
“We’ve got to stay patient, stick with our game, get shots to the net, create opportunities, trying to get in front of the goalie’s eyes, find those rebounds,” listed defenceman Alec Martinez, the lone Vegas scorer on yet another night when the entire forward ranks failed to dent the twine in a 2-1 loss.
“You can’t try to do anything extraordinary. Everyone just has to try and do their own job.”
Right now, the term “extraordinary” would define propelling a puck past Dallas Stars goalie Anton Khudobin, who has played his way into the Conn Smythe conversation, stopping 32 shots to win Game 4 and put his Stars one win away from a trip to the Stanley Cup Final since the year 2000.
As good as Khudobin has been, however, the Stars’ team defence has been as good or better. On Saturday, with the Golden Knights trailing 2-1 and staring down a 3-1 series deficit, Vegas couldn’t find a shot on goal in the final 3:51.
“The way the guys are battling, the way they’re blocking the shots,” began Khudobin, dubbed ‘Anton Khudini’ by a voice on Twitter Saturday. “They have bruises and they have bumps, and they still sacrifice their bodies to go and block the shots. Even if they can’t, they’re still trying and they’re working their ass off to make sure that I see the puck. If I don’t, then they block and stay alive and don’t get scored on, which is unbelievable team effort I would say.”
That kind of praise is why the 34-year-old has established himself as one of the most universally well-liked teammates in the game today.
What about his own game, with Khudobin starting all but two of the Stars’ playoff games this fall?
“I just tried to find the puck and react to it,” he shrugged. “I don’t know if it’s luck or whatever. Let’s call it luck.”
It’s true: Dallas has had almost all the luck in this series. Like the tying goal, coming just less than four minutes after Vegas had opened the scoring in Period 2.
“I think they scored on their seventh shot, halfway through the game,” said Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer. “Their best player, Joe Pavelski, takes a backhand, it rolls up the shaft of our stick and over our goalie’s shoulder. We haven’t got any of those. We have to stick with it until we do.”
Truly, Vegas owns the puck in this series, ahead in Corsi (53.9%), Fenwick (57.01%), shots (54.55), but not in scoring chances (46.38%), according to Natural Stat Trick. If this were a best-of-11, the Golden Knights could take solace in the fact that all that possession would eventually translate into goals and wins.
But it’s a best-of-seven and the favorites are down 3-1. Something’s got to change, and fast, or Vegas will be leaving the bubble with nothing to show for seven weeks in Edmonton lock-up.
“There’s a sense of urgency right now, where we are in the series,” said Reilly Smith, who had just a single shot on goal in 19:56 of ice time. “We have to stay positive. The more you get down on yourself, the more you kind of push yourself in the opposite direction. Goals are going to be scored in the hard areas, we know that. We just have to start finding pucks. Do a better job of making space for each other, clearing space in front of their net.
“It seems like the puck is bouncing every way but in their net. We just have to find a way to change that.”
A Vegas team that recently went four games without a single forward scoring anything but an empty net goal watched as Martinez notched their only goal in Game 4.
“As a forward group,” said Smith, “we can’t rely on our defence to score every single goal for us every single night.”
Right now, Dallas owns the net front at both ends of the rink. They’re defending like the second stingiest team in the National Hockey League this regular season, and when a shot does get through, Khudobin is reminiscent of another little Eastern Bloc goalie from a few years ago.
Like the great Latvian Arturs Irbe, suddenly Khudini is “like wall.”
“He’s feelin’ good. He’s there before the shot gets there a lot of times,” allowed DeBoer. “It’s perseverance. There’s no magic pill to take. It’s making it as tough as we can on him, making sure the puck gets in the hands of the right guys for us, and having the confidence to shoot one by him here.
“I think the efforts there. We’re creating a lot of really good looks. Defensively we’ve been good,” he said. “This is a long way from over.
“We’re going to be a tough out.”