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The Vegas Golden Knights Defensemen and Center’s Have Thrived in New System This Post Season

It’s no coincidence that in playoff hockey, teams with solid goaltending and excellent defensive play win more times than not. Every team has had that, but for the Vegas Golden Knights, who are now on their fourth-string goalie Adin Hill, the team has had to adjust to playing an even more structured game defensively, all while not sacrificing offense. Out of the four teams to make the conference finals, the Vegas Golden Knights have given up the fewest goals with 38 and are tied for the most with 52. The Vegas Golden Knights system is working.

Two things have generated Vegas’ success in all playoffs, their depth at the centre and on the blue line and how they play team defence. It’s quite challenging when a team like Vegas, who are not overly physical in terms of hits, plays such a frustrating defensive style. The key to their success in their defensive zone is how they layer themselves. It also helps to have star players all over the ice.

New Coach, New System

The new Vegas Golden Knights system works. In the defensive zone, Bruce Cassidy’s system, which is a zone defence, is all about protecting the centre of the ice. Unlike typical defensive systems in the NHL, man-to-man is all about the winger marking the opposing defensemen while the defensemen and centre, or the first forward back, play the opposing forwards down low. If the defensemen jump into the offense and either can create a hinge up top for support or even jump down low for a low scissor, basically a pick and roll in basketball, the defence will give up chances. This is only effective if you have communication and rely on the players being mentally on the same page.

Vegas is relentless when defending below the circles and between the dots. If the puck is outside that area, they’re perfectly fine with the opponents having possession. This relies heavily on trusting that your goaltender will make those saves outside that area.

The idea with their defensive style is to clog up the shooting and passing lanes to make puck movement around the net difficult. This also heavily relies on players to sacrifice their bodies to block shots. With the defence compacted out in front of their goaltender, eyesight may be an issue. This isn’t truly a concern as the Golden Knight goalie Adin Hill is 6’6″; still, Vegas is phenomenal at shot-blocking. Vegas, as a team, are blocking 19 shots a game. Three of the top five players in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs in blocked shots are Vegas defensemen.

Defensemen Leading The Way

Another thing that has been frustrating teams, especially Dallas, is the size and reach of the Golden Knight’s defensemen—the smallest of the group being Alec Martinez, who is 6’1″ and 200 pounds. He is currently the active leader in blocked shots in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The average height of the core six defensemen who have played this playoff is over 6’3″. It’s also tough when they are terrific skaters and cover the ground with long strides but have a ten-foot reach. Frustrations finally came to a boiling point last game when the Dallas Stars received two game misconducts.

Martinez’s partner, Alex Pietrangelo is right behind him in blocked shot with 34. Pietrangelo is the real work horse on the blue line. He is the only Golden Knight to average over 20 minuted a game at 23:50 and is arguably the best player they have. The pairing of Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb eat up minutes on the blue line as well. Theodore is third on the team in power play ice time and is the most offensively inclined  of the defensemen, although they all can skate and move the puck.

The so called third defensive pair of Zach Whitecloud and Nick Hague are the most physical of the pairs. The thing with all six of the defensemen is all six play between 18 to 20 minutes a game, outside of Pietrangelo. Bruce Cassidy does not try to hide defensemen like other teams do in the playoffs by limiting their ice time. He has complete faith in all of them.

Depth at Center

This is where the Vegas Golden Knights system has shined the brightest. The depth at the centre position is another critical aspect of Vegas’s incredible stretch of play as of late. The acquisition of Jack Eichel last year has paid off this season, as he has become one of the best two-way centers in the game. Not only has Eichel scored timely goals this postseason but his vision and play-making ability have been fully displayed. He leads the team in assists, but mentioning his two-way play, he also leads the forwards in blocked shots and takeaways.

Couple that with Chandler Stephenson having stepped up his play. Which is much to do with the Knights captain Mark Stone being his right wing. Stephenson not only leads the team in goals with seven but averages 3:41 on the power play and well over a minute of penalty kill time a game. Stephenson’s line was matched against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for most of the series against the Edmonton Oilers. The only knock on Stephenson is he can be streaky offensivley.

Centering the third line is William Karlsson. People forget he was the Vegas Golden Knights best player in their inaugural season when they fell short of a cup. Karlsson, who leads Vegas in even-strength goals, has quietly made lives terrible for opponents. Karlsson’s line, were always on the ice five-on-five against Dallas’ Jason Robertson, Joe Pavelski, and Roope Hintz. The top offensive line in the playoffs overall.

It’s fascinating to see how Eichel has played this postseason. Karlsson and Stephenson have been a part of championship runs before. Still, Jack Eichel has only been in the playoffs this season. It’s interesting to see if he could elevate his game to another level, which he has. Not only are these three of the Golden Knight’s top contributors, but they understand the importance of defence. Especially in the playoffs. When a team plays zone defence, it is critical that the centres be just as strong defensively as the defensemen. If not, it all falls apart. The old adage in hockey is that a hot goalie can win you a championship. Even more, you cannot win a Stanley Cup without great defence and centre play.

Main Photo: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports


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