LAS VEGAS – Just because Matthew Tkachuk enjoys friendly summertime skates with dad Keith’s former teammate, Alex Pietrangelo, doesn’t mean he won’t punch him in the face for no good reason in the Stanley Cup Final.
The Vegas Golden Knights‘ No. 1 defenceman has seen the act before and sounds determined to not let agitation boil over into stupidity, the way it did in the Edmonton series, with his reckless slash of Leon Draisaitl and subsequent suspension.
Even if he feels targeted once again.
“Why? I don’t know. Best way to react is to not react,” Pietrangelo says.
“You name the series, I’ve been taking it from people in different ways — during the play, after the whistle, whatever it is. I can take it. You gotta stay disciplined in those situations. I think being tough isn’t always reacting or fighting or whatever, but I can take it. I’ve been down this road before.”
Cheek-turning has become a calling card of this veteran group.
The Knights took just 18 minutes’ worth of penalties in a scrum-happy Game 1 to the Florida Panthers 46.
So penalized were the agitated visitors that when Paul Maurice incorrectly challenged Mark Stone’s third-period insurance goal and earned a delay-of-game punishment, the coach explained the referees’ decision thusly: “Must’ve been excited to get us back into the box one more time.”
No playoff team has spent more time in the box than the Cats, who are hell-bent on dragging every series into the alley.
Florida has committed a playoff-high 86 penalties and ranks a league-worst minus-14 in net penalties this post-season.
Conversely, Vegas has drawn 92 penalties for a plus-11 net. Far and away the most disciplined squad in the tournament.
It’s not that the Knights shy from contact, though. They pride themselves on a hard, honest brand of hockey, and roll out frustratingly big forwards that draw calls with their puck protection.
There’s something tactical at play, too.
Coach Bruce Cassidy instructs his large defencemen to guard the net front and box out well so his goalies can see the puck. This places increased demand on Vegas’s centremen — good skaters all — to stay busy in the D-zone and try to break up plays that might tempt the D-men to stray from position and commit stick infractions.
Florida’s strategy is more man-to-man and scattershot. They pursue the puck in all three zones, even if that means getting overzealous.
“They’re an aggressive team all over the ice. The most aggressive team we’ve played so far,” Stone notes.
“If you can be crisp and execute at a high level, you start to get them out of position.”
Even if penalties contributed to the Panthers’ undoing in Game 1, don’t expect them to change their stripes now.
“That’s our identity. We’re a hard team. So, we’re gonna stay hard,” says Ryan Lomberg.
Adds Anthony Duclair: “We’re trying to play an aggressive game, an in-your-face game, and we’re trying to play on that line, for sure.”
Maurice believes the hyper-combative approach has only been further entrenched since they made playoffs.
“There were 87 hits in the first game against Boston, and that hasn’t really come off,” Maurice says.
“It’s Game 1 of the final, right? There’s lots of juice and energy. Finish our hits. Try to stay out of the box. But we’re not going to pull off the physicality. We can’t. It’s what we do well.”
Tkachuk coughs up ‘a bad one‘
File under “When High Flips Go Wrong.”
Down by just a single goal in the third period of Game 1, Tkachuk gathered a defensive-zone rebound. He had time and space up the right wing to safely exit the zone, yet instead attempted a flip pass up the middle that was picked off deftly by Stone and deposited into the Cats’ net faster than you can say pepperoni.
“You touch the puck as much as the elite players touch the puck, there is going to be a giveaway you don’t like. That was a bad one,” Maurice says.
The coach won’t sugar-coat a sour moment, but he’s willing to live with the risk.
“You wouldn’t take any part of his game away. He gets an opportunity to make plays. What’s interesting is that he’s just done that so many times, right? The two players are very similar, Stone and Tkachuk, in terms of their hand-eye, their ability to knock pucks down, to make those plays.
“It’s true of defenceman as well, especially offensive defencemen as well. They’re going to have the puck so many times, they’re going to make one of those. We’ll have to deal with it.”
Tkachuk was not made available to speak postgame, nor Sunday.
Prior to puck drop, he did relay a bit of advice he received from players who had tasted the fourth round.
“People that maybe try and oversimplify it or, to the other extreme, try to be a hero, that’s probably those guys that are probably going to be in trouble,” Tkachuk said.
One wonders if the star’s brutal Game 1 will affect him. Is he compelled to dumb-down his game? Will he try too hard to make up for his mistakes?
The book on Bob
Derek Lalonde didn’t let the cat out of the bag this time.
No, instead blame Sean Burke for revealing the weaknesses of a Florida-based star Russian goalie.
The morning before Vegas’s Game 1 triumph, Burke, the Golden Knights’ director of goaltending, made a presentation to the team’s shooters on how to solve Sergei Bobrovsky, formerly the hottest goaltender in hockey.
Hours later, the Knights beat him clean twice in close and twice more screened from a distance.
For the first time in 36 nights, Bobrovsky surrendered four goals and posted a sub-.917 save percentage (.879). He looked, in a word, human.
Cassidy relays Burke’s report: “Bottom half of the net moving laterally is tough. You gotta beat him upstairs once he’s moving. [When there is] traffic at the net, he gets — I don’t want to say small, because that’s not fair — but he crouches a little more to find pucks. That was the [Shea] Theodore goal. Stone’s was just a quick release up there. If you’re going to go up there, it’s got to be quick.
“Even though we don’t get the high volume of shots, we try to look for a good one.”
It’s early, and Bobrovsky’s spring has been elite, but the Knights might be cracking the man Carolina and Toronto could not.
“I think we trust our pre-scout,” Pietrangelo said. “We’ve got big enough bodies where we can get inside and make life difficult for him.”
Dalpe gets his payoff
Since Zac Dalpe was drafted 15 years ago, he has played more games for the Charlotte Checkers than the Carolina Hurricanes.
He’s ridden more buses with the Rochester Americans than planes with the Buffalo Sabres.
If you saw him play for the Wild, there’s a better chance you were in Iowa than Minnesota.
And Dalpe’s point totals with the Cleveland Monsters dwarf his production for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Yet, when Coach Maurice told the 33-year-old less than an hour before Saturday’s puck drop that he’d be playing in a Stanley Cup Final — thus qualifying Dalpe’s name for a trophy engraving — the news was as wonderful as it was surprising.
“It’s probably something I didn’t have on my bingo card to start the year. I’ve been a journeyman. Kind of carved out a long career of injuries and ups and downs,” Dalpe says.
“To find out right before warmup that I was going in… just a dream come true. It’s something you’ve worked your whole life for.
“What makes it special for me now, at this age, is my kids are old enough to understand what’s going on. So, it’s not just a payoff for me, but a payoff for them. It’s been a long year for me, not seeing them, going a month or two without seeing them. So, to see them at home watching the game and being excited for me, it was a good payoff.”
One-Timers: Game 1 of the final was broadcast to fans in 250 countries and territories…. Jonathan Marchessault is on a heater. He has eight goals in his past eight games and is riding a six-game point streak…. Duclair declares Aleksander Barkov a top-three player in the world…. Of the Golden Knights’ 13 playoff wins, nine have been comeback victories.