DALLAS — It was before the Western Conference Final began when Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy discussed the importance of cutting off the middle of the defensive zone and limiting the Dallas Stars from getting to the front of the net and the high slot for tips and deflections.
Those were the danger zones, he stressed. Those areas had to be defended because that’s where the Stars want to be, where they thrive. It was No. 1 on the Golden Knights’ agenda of how to stop the Stars from defeating them.
They’re getting the job done.
The Stars won 3-2 in overtime Thursday to extend the series to Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS), but they have not been dominant in front of the net in this series the way they were in the first two rounds.
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Dallas has scored eight goals in four games, two off deflections in the net-front area, neither from forward Joe Pavelski, arguably the best player in the NHL at tipping pucks for goals.
Jason Robertson deflected a shot by Roope Hintz in the first period of Game 1, and Heiskanen was credited with a goal in the first period of Game 2 when his shot from above the right face-off circle that was intended for Radek Faksa to deflect from in front of the net instead went in off the stick of Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore.
“Good defensive hockey, right,” Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “In every series we’re frustrating the top players, skill players. But it’s a buy-in throughout the lineup. It’s not one [defense] pairing or one forward line. There are matchups that we use, but collectively as a group we’re clogging up the middle of the ice and we’re frustrating teams. Guys are paying a price for blocking shots that need to be blocked. When you have a buy-in up and down the lineup defensively like that, it’s frustrating to play against.”
Dallas’ three goals in Game 4 came from Robertson batting the puck into the net like a baseball player and later putting one in after Esa Lindell‘s shot from the point went off the end boards and to the front of the net, and then Pavelski ripping a one-timer from the left circle.
Ty Dellandrea was in front of the net when Lindell was shooting, but Pietrangelo was right there trying to tie up his stick.
“Our forwards have done a good job not giving them that open lane to the net and we’ve made some adjustments on one of the net-front guys stepping out to that high tip option,” Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore said. “We know Pavelski is up there. We know he’s good at getting his stick on pucks. Just trying to eliminate that, get sticks and boxing out in the corners has been key for us.”
When Cassidy spoke before the series, he talked about the Golden Knights defensemen and how they likely would have to step up to stop the Stars as they go for high tips and deflections.
Vegas plays a system that requires its defensemen to stay closer to the crease, but the Stars forwards, particularly Pavelski, like to pop out higher, a few feet above the crease. But Dallas can only do that if they get to the net and establish position.
The Golden Knights have not given them much opportunity to do that, even in Game 4.
“They like to shoot pucks off the net to get those tips, but [Cassidy] has asked our [defensemen] to box out and they box out,” Vegas forward Mark Stone said. “They don’t let anybody to get to the front of the net, and that allows our goaltender to make the saves that he’s been making.”
Golden Knights goalie Adin Hill has mentioned several times in this series how well he’s seeing the puck.
Cassidy said a factor is the Golden Knights’ ability to stop the Stars from making the low to high play that sets up a shot from the point to the net front.
“If you can choke off the play sooner before they roll it low to high, kill it behind the goal line, we wanted to be more aggressive in those situations,” he said.
When they do get it low to high, the Stars want to bring a forward up to join the defensemen so they essentially layer their options in front of the net, one closer to Hill and one closer to the hash marks.
Video: [email protected], Gm2: Heiskanen gives Stars early lead
But Golden Knights forwards have been good at denying pucks from getting through and their defensemen are blocking what does get through. Through four games, Vegas defensemen have blocked 41 shots and the forwards have blocked 25.
“You can take away passing and shooting lanes and I think we’ve been real cognizant of that,” Cassidy said.
Dallas still has gotten a few through. In Game 3, Joel Kiviranta moved slightly away from the net front and got his stick on Thomas Harley‘s shot, but the puck hit the post at 19:00.
And on Heiskanen’s goal in Game 2, Faksa was at the net and Kiviranta, a forward, was high in the zone on that play.
“But for the most part we’ve been able to stay loose in front of the net and get out to that bumper,” Cassidy said. “I think it was an area of concern for us that we’ve handled well.”