Hard Hits: Golden Knights are for real


In its amazing inaugural season that included a Pacific Division crown and 109 points, the Vegas Golden Knights are continuing to prove they’re for real in the NHL Playoffs.

Playing a experienced and tough opponent with a championship pedigree in the Kings, they have been up to the challenge so far. In winning the first two postseason games on a electric home ice unlike no other at T-Mobile Arena, these Knights don’t back down from anything.

Nothing seems to intimidate Jack Adams lock Gerard Gallant’s cohesive team that plays like one functioning unit. All year, they’ve played a aggressive style utilizing speed, skill with grit to put opponents on the defensive. Their transition makes teams uncomfortable.

That’s been the case so far against natural rival Los Angeles. While the Kings boast the best player up front and on the blueline in the best-of-seven first round series, they’ve been unable to match the Golden Knights. They can’t keep up.

It hasn’t even mattered that former Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick has played remarkably. In the two games, he’s allowed only three goals on 84 shots. In Game 2, he was sensational throughout stopping 54 of 56 shots in a gut wrenching 2-1 loss in double overtime. He was beaten once in regulation by Alexander Tuch on a unlucky bounce off the back boards for a rebound.

Sudden death was just as lopsided with the Knights outshooting the Kings 23-10. LA’s chances were minimal with a couple of near misses from Anze Kopitar. The star centerman who doesn’t have a point with Game 3 critical Sunday night when the series shifts to Hollywood. Along with Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, the Kings’ best players have to get going. They will get perennial former Norris winning defenseman Drew Doughty back after a bogus suspension for a hit on Knights’ spark plug William Carrier. It wasn’t a direct headshot with Doughty going shoulder to shoulder on a tough hit that cut Carrier, who was his rugged self finishing checks for a game high 11 hits in Game 2.

When one looks at the speed and tenacity these Golden Knights play with on both sides of the puck, they don’t give you much room to breathe. It helps explain why the Kings have had a tough time establishing a consistent forecheck. Their best period was the third the other night following defenseman Paul LaDue’s first career postseason goal late in the second that tied it.

They had eight shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, who has shown his own championship big game experience. The former Pen who’s won three Stanley Cups has just given up one goal on 60 shots in eight periods to the Kings. He hasn’t faced the same volume or degree of difficulty as Quick. In fact, the Knights out-attempted the Kings 111-68 on Friday. They outshot them 56-30. Vegas had 55 attempts that never reached the net with LA selling out to block 35 shots. They also missed on another 20.

The overtime winner from Golden Knight hero Erik Haula was a perfectly executed play by veteran James Neal. A former teammate with Fleury on the Pens, Neal took a Shea Theodore pass and drew three Kings before moving the puck to a trailing Haula, who broke in one on one against Quick. He was able to make a nice fake going with a deke before just tucking the puck around Quick’s aggressive poke check at 95:23 of the second overtime.

That’s the kind of year it’s been for those fancy Knights in those cool dark jerseys with the ultra cool Knight logo. Even though I picked the more proven Kings in this series, I knew Vegas had a good chance. They’re a very good team with excellent chemistry. Well coached by Gallant, they suffocate opponents by limiting their time and space.

There’s nothing fake about them. They execute it to perfection. Even in tight checking, low scoring games, they’ve prevailed 1-0 and 2-1 to put themselves in good position to advance to the second round. It’ll take a Herculean effort from the Kings, who are without D Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort. The Knights don’t have leading assist man David Perron.

Vegas will continue to play aggressively using their greatest asset. Their speed to make things difficult on LA. They will continue to hit whenever they get a chance. After the teams combined for 127 in Game One favoring the Kings 68-59, they totaled 136 with LA holding a 80-56 edge in Game Two.

Basically, that means the Knights had more puck possession which would explain the lopsided shot totals and attempts. They were far more dangerous forcing Quick into difficult saves. He played as well as he could, eerily reminding of 2012 and ’14 when he helped lead the Kings to two Cups. He’s a big game goalie like Fleury, who’s won 404 games on his way to the Hockey Hall Of Fame. Quick leads the Kings franchise in wins (293), games played (556), shutouts (49) and losses (195). He’s also first in shots against (14,759), saves (13,526), save percentage (.916) and goals-against-average (2.28).

None of this is a revelation. It’s a tribute to two great netminders who are in a epic battle where goals are hard to come by. Unless the Kings figure out a way to find the offense needed to get to Fleury, they can’t win. Not even with Quick.

The scary aspect is William Karlsson doesn’t have a point either for the Golden Knights. Who will hit the score sheet first? Him or Kopitar. It might not matter due to the Knights’ superior depth.

BODY CHECKS

-The NHL Department of Player Safety is batting .500 so far. They were wrong to suspend Doughty for a game. However, they made Leafs center Nazem Kadri pay for this reckless hit from behind in Game One against the Bruins.

He got three games which hasn’t helped Toronto one bit. They find themselves in a 0-2 hole.

-I’ve said how much I love that Bruins top line of the rat Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and emerging star David “Pasta” Pastrnak. After doing a good number in a 5-1 win in Game One, they absolutely destroyed the Leafs in a 7-3 Game Two humiliation at TD Garden. How impressive was the best line in hockey? They combined for 14 points (3-11-14) highlighted by a Pastrnak six-point effort that included a hat trick with the pasta 🍝 man finishing it in style.

-Pastrnak’s nine points through two games tied former Bruin and Hall of Famer Phil Esposito for the most points in NHL history.

-If you could choose one goal of these playoffs only four days in, which is it?

A.Sidney Crosby’s baseball bat backhand connection on a knuckle puck en route to a natural hat trick in the Pens’ 7-0 win in Game One over the Flyers.

B.Filip Forsberg’s between the legs of Samuel Girard and ridiculous finish in Nashville’s 5-2 win in Game One over the Avalanche.

C.Artemi “The Magician” Panarin’s unreal toe drag around Dmitry Orlov for a sweet finish top shelf to beat the Capitals in sudden death for the Blue Jackets’ come from behind 4-3 win in Game One.

D.Avalanche superstar Nathan MacKinnon’s filthy backhand goal during a brilliant rush past Pekka Rinne Saturday in a tough 5-4 loss in Game Two at Nashville.

E.Evgeni Malkin’s one on three blow by out of the penalty box beating Flyers goalie Brian Elliott with a sick backhand in Game One for the Pens.

Honorable Mentions:

-Pastrnak’s sweet finish to the backhand from Marchand to complete his hat trick on Saturday.

-Sean Couturier’s no look behind the back feed for a Claude Giroux power play goal in the Flyers’ 5-1 win in Game Two over the Pens.

-Patrik Laine’s rocket πŸš€ one-time slap shot top shelf by Devan Dubnyk in Winnipeg’s 4-1 win in Game Two over the Wild.

-Evander Kane’s backhand deke and tuck past John Gibson for his second goal in the Sharks’ 3-0 Game One shutout of the Ducks.

-Travis Konecny’s strong power move and finish upstairs on a mini break past Matt Murray in Game Two for the Flyers.

-There’s probably more. That’s the great part about the hockey playoffs. Players raise their level.

-Winnipeg has so dominated Minnesota that they look like the best West team. While Nashville has struggled so far to put together a complete 60 minutes against the surprising Avalanche, the Jets are busy attacking the Wild all over the ice with physicality, puck possession, shots and a overlooked defense that’s made life easy so far on Vezina candidate Connor Hellebuyck.

-The Jets possess elite scorers Blake Wheeler, Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny and 31-goal rookie Kyle Connor. They’re a very scary team who also features twin towers Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers on the back end. Both of who can contribute on offense with top heavy shots and bang around opponents with physicality.

-If form holds with both the Predators and Jets up 2-0 in their first round series, they’ll face each other in a electrifying second round that would be similar to Caps vs Pens in past years. That’s the one downfall of the divisional playoff format because sometimes, fans get the best match up in Round 2 instead of the Conference Finals. Three points is all that separated the bitter rivals during the season.

-As much as I enjoy natural rivalries, I believe they should reseed. That would reward the best teams for the regular season.

-From the non-PR department. How can NBC explain having two games at 3 PM on a Saturday? It makes no sense. While you had the Devils and Lightning on NBC, the Avalanche and Predators were playing on CNBC at the same time. So much for logic prevailing. This is the NHL’s partner. At least ABC/ESPN gets it right in the NBA scheduling four games in a row at different time slots. Are you listening Gary?

-I also didn’t understand the Flyers and Pens at the same time as the Wild and Jets during the week. Is it so difficult to move the other game to half an hour later? At least that way fans aren’t channel flipping back and forth. It’s hard to keep track of two games when they’re both scheduled at identical times.

-I know it’s not the way they envisioned starting their first round series against the Lightning. But if the Devils can avoid the penalty box and stay disciplined, they have a chance to come back and win Game 3 in Newark. That requires playing the lethal Bolts at five-on-five and not having any brain cramps. They don’t need many chances to score.

-I didn’t realize the Devils defense had suddenly morphed into the Rangers under former coach Alain Vigneault. Where the motto was vacate the front of the net and let Henrik Lundqvist fend for himself. Could anyone really blame folk hero Keith Kinkaid for the mess his team left him?

-I also don’t advocate playing only 11 forwards and seven defensemen in any playoff game. See how well that worked for AV against the same Lightning in 2015. You need to roll four lines and believe in your best six guys on D. Hasan is 100 percent right in his post.

-For as much as they made the Flyers look like amateurs in Game One, the Pens didn’t play as good as they would have you believe in the 5-1 loss in Game Two. They may have outshot the Flyers 35-20 and out-attempted them by a significant margin but Philadelphia showed up ready to play. Not only getting big stops from Elliott but taking advantage of a loss of discipline from Pittsburgh. You betcha Game Three at 3 EST today is a huge game for the two-time defending champs. They’ll be in enemy territory. They’re still heavy favorites to win this series. They don’t want to make it harder than it has to be. Especially with a shot at history.

-There’s never been a better player than Crosby when it comes to hand eye coordination. You can take whoever you want. Nobody has ever done it better than the supremely skilled Sid The Kid on deflecting pucks for goals. He’s amazing.

-It was brought to my attention that former Rangers coach and current Columbus bench boss John Tortorella looks like a rat man by buddy John “JPG” Giagnorio. He might have a point.

Is that you Splinter?!?! I’ve never seen him smile like that ever at a fan during a game. Maybe he has lightened up. His team has a chance to make franchise history. The Blue Jackets have never advanced out of the first round.

-There’s a lot of pressure on the Caps in that series. Lose tonight and they go down two games to a much improved Columbus team that’s been very different since adding Thomas Vanek and Ian Cole at the deadline.

-I’m still trying to locate Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

-The Blackhawks had to dump salary and gave up Panarin for former Cup hero Brandon Saad in a four player deal last summer involving picks. How did that work out?

-Congrats to longtime Bruins national anthem singer Rene Rancourt on his retirement after 40 years. There’s still some games left if the B’s make a run. The king of the fist pump!

-I know I’m not alone. I sure am gonna miss Stan Fischler. I was so privileged to intern and get to know The Maven. What a character. He’s still telling jokes making us laugh. Congrats on your retirement!

-If I’m the Rangers and it largely depends on GM Jeff Gorton’s summer plans, I would consider going after Evander Kane. He brings all the missing ingredients they need. Imagine him and future captain Chris Kreider on the same roster. If they have the cap space, would they consider it? The goal is to be competitive as long as Henrik Lundqvist is still around. First, they must choose a coach. Take your time.

-I never understood why the Islanders weren’t open to trading John Tavares. Mathew Barzal is a better player to build around. Don’t forget. Kieffer Bellows is on the way. They really are betting on the dynamic duo of Garth Snow and Doug Weight this July. Their bigger need is a top flight defenseman. Sure makes sense to tie up Tavares for another eight years while failing to address the real weakness.

-I really enjoyed playoff hockey without every game on NBC or NBCSN.

-If you haven’t already, please contribute whatever you can to the Humboldt Broncos. A heartbreaking tragedy that’s brought the hockey community together. I donated. Stick taps for all the families with a heavy heart. Over $11 million has been raised. That’s amazing! πŸ’πŸ’œπŸ˜’

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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