Better stars or better team?
In the NHL regular season, the supernovas come out at night and shine like
Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen in Colorado. In the playoffs, the teams playing the best, like the Vegas Golden Knights, well, the sky’s the limit for this deep crew as they reach for the Stanley Cup.
And so it was that Vegas, which doesn’t have the megawatt star power of MacKinnon, a Hart trophy finalist for a second straight season, still turned out the lights on the Avalanche’s run in the post-season Thursday night.
After getting blown out 7-1 by MacKinnon and Co. in Game 1 and losing in overtime in Game 2 on Rantanen’s goal, the unsexy Vegas team gave up a goal to Rantanen and two assists to MacKinnon, who both showed up in a big way, but dug in to win the exciting but error-filled game 6, 6-3.
“That’s a tough team that we just beat, the President’s Trophy winner, with one of the best players in the world (MacKinnon), a goalie (Philipp Grubauer) up for the Vezina,” said Vegas captain Mark Stone, who got the overtime winner in Game 5, but sat back and watched the lesser lights in the clincher, which underscores how deep Vegas is.
They did it with deflection goals from fourth-liners Keegan Kolesar and William Carrier, who played 9:47 and 8:35 minutes, and from No. 6 defenceman Nick Holden, who scored 52 seconds after Devon Toews had the fastest playoff goal in Avs/Quebec Nordiques’ history 23 seconds after puck drop. As well as the winner from another blue liner Alex Pietrangelo, one of their few stars, to win four straight against the Avs.
“In the playoffs, you’ve got your matchup (lines), especially when you have a top line (MacKinnon, Rantanen and either Gabe Landeskog or Brandon Saad) as they have,” said Pietrangelo. “Those are hard minutes to try and shut them down. You always need secondary scoring. Some nights the other team’s top line gets the best of you, some nights your team has to do a (defensive) job on them. You expect other people to pick up the offence.”
Stone saw different goals in Game 6.
“You need the goals in close, that’s the way you have to score in the playoffs but there’s not just one way to score. We also got a one-timer, a shot from the point, an empty-netter,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who buy into their roles and it was pretty awesome to see them get rewarded. They’ve been soldiers for us all year. We had guys in and out of the line-up all through the series, making different contributions at different times.”
Goals aside, they were tougher with their bigger bodies, along with their playoff savvy to take the Pacific Division title. Two of the Avs’ defenceman–Patrik Nemeth and Samuel Girard struggled–Nemeth with the pace of play and Girard, even with his offensive chops, with his size trying to handle people around his net. Now Vegas will play in the Final Four against the Montreal Canadiens, a hard-scrabble team as well but one that doesn’t score as much. The Habs, however, are much bigger on the back-end with Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry and they make it tough to get to the net.
“That might be tough on the family, might be divided. Same with Marchy (Jonathan Marchessault),” laughed the Montreal-born Carrier, who set up camp where he usually does around the net.
“I think Kolie’s (Kolesar) goal was maybe from four feet away and mine five.”
The pre-game questions Thursday were about whether the Avs could recover from a crushing overtime loss Tuesday, when they were up by two with 20 minutes left. And also whether their coach, Jared Bednar, would be cleared to run the show after a COVID-19 test irregularity caused him to miss the morning skate in Vegas.
Bednar was at work after a subsequent negative test but his team, even as hard as they tried, couldn’t get the job done in a fantastic 60 minutes between the two teams tied for most NHL points (82) over 56 games.
“What went wrong in the series? I could sit here for 15 minutes and talk about it,” said Landeskog. “You try and stay in the moment but looking back and evaluating it, in Game 3 we didn’t play good at all. In Game 4, we competed hard but made mistakes they scored on. In Game 5, we were in control and we made three turnovers and they scored on all three. Tonight, we worked our butts off and kept coming back, but we have a couple of shifts where we’re not really engaged and they capitalize.”
Pietreangelo was probably the most complete player on the ice in the closer. He threw his hands into the air after the goal, his 46th shot of the playoffs, finally one that went in.
“Not a very good average,” Pietrangelo laughed of his shots-to-goals ratio.
Rantanen, Toews and Andre Burakovsky, who has 10 goals in 14 elimination games, scored on a much sharper Marc-Andre Fleury, who has now won 89 playoff games to move past Hall-of-Famers Billy Smith and Eddie Belfour into fourth place all-time.
“What changed? It was getting back to our fans, to our sold-out rink for the third game,” Stone said. “I think the tide changed when we got them involved.”
MacKinnon broke a three-game pointless playoff run and his two assists gave him 69 points in his first 50 playoff games — one behind his general manager, Joe Sakic. But it’s small consolation to be in the same sentence as his Hall-of-Fame boss, when you’re in the handshake line.
With Vegas winning, three of the four teams that reached the semis at the Edmonton bubble in 2020 — the Golden Knights, Tampa and the New York Islanders — are back. That hasn’t happened in 30 years.
On Twitter: @jimmathesonnhl