EL SEGUNDO, CA — Just hours from now, the city of Las Vegas will host its first major playoff game, with the Vegas Golden Knights hosting the Los Angeles Kings in their first round Stanley Cup Playoff series.
The Golden Knights have quickly built a solid fan base that has made for a very loud T-Mobile Arena, which will likely be even louder in the post-season.
“[One] thing is just the environment there, in Las Vegas,” said Kings winger Dustin Brown. “They’ve been loud for 41 regular season games. Now they get a taste of the playoffs. There’s probably a lot of excitement in that city. We have to be prepared to go in there and deal with that atmosphere.”
“That’s a really tough building to play in, especially in a playoff atmosphere,” said defenseman Alec Martinez. “That arena is going to be buzzing. That said, Staples [Center] will be, too. It’s two good hockey clubs going at it.”
The Kings have enough veteran experience to be able to handle the crowd in Las Vegas. But will they be able to handle the Golden Knights speed?
“I think it’ll be a really good matchup,” Martinez noted. “Vegas is a really fast team and they’ve had a lot of success this year. They’ve been really successful because of their team game. They have a lot of speed. That’s something we’re going to have to be aware of. Their depth, all the way through their lineup, they play the same way. It seems like they’re all committed to the style of play they’re successful with. Their team game, their work ethic, and their commitment throughout their lineup. They’re always coming, regardless of who’s out there.”
“They’re a very speedy team and they transition the puck really well,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We’re going to have to make sure that we have numbers coming back, first and foremost, and that we’re not doing anything where they get chances off of our mistakes. [But] they’re going to make plays. That’s what good teams do and they’re a good team. There will be that odd-man rush against us. We just have to limit that.”
“The first thing that comes to mind is their speed,” said Brown. “They’re probably been the fastest team all year and teams have had a hard time handling that. We’ve got to find a way to limit their speed game. I think a lot it comes from turnovers. They’re really quick on the transition.”
Depth throughout the Golden Knights lineup helps their team speed and how fast they play the game.
“When you talk about Vegas’ team speed, it applies to two areas,” head coach John Stevens explained. “It applies to the flat-out ability of their team to skate. But it also applies to how fast they play. They can be two distinctly different things. But they’ve combined team speed with a team that plays really fast, which makes them a really quick team in transition in both directions.”
“They’re able to do that because they’re deep,” Stevens elaborated. “They roll four lines. They have options who come in and out of their lineup.”
“They seem to roll four lines and they keep on coming,” said Martinez. “They spread their minutes out a lot. That means every line is refreshed and every line is buzzing. That helps contribute to their team speed—the fact that they play fast.”
One aspect of the game where the Kings have a slight edge might be in goal. But between the Golden Knights’ Marc-Andre Fleury and the Kings’ Jonathan Quick, it might be too close to call.
“They’re both really talented guys and I think they’re really ultra-competitive guys,” said Stevens. “When you combine those two things, you’re going to get goalies who are capable of great performances and being difference-makers in [a playoff] series. They’ve both won multiple [Stanley] Cups, they’ve both got a ton of experience in the league, they’re both athletic guys, and I don’t know Fleury that well, but from everything I’ve seen, both [of them] are really good teammates. When you have a goalie who’s a really good teammate, the team plays really hard for them. That certainly seems to be the case for both of those guys.”
One area where the Kings should have a significant advantage is down the middle. Indeed, even with the outstanding season that Golden Knights center William Karlsson has had, at least on paper, Vegas does not have the one-two punch down the middle that the Kings have, with Kopitar and Jeff Carter.
Nevertheless, Karlsson is a force to be reckoned with.
“I don’t know if you can single him out, but you have to be aware when he’s on the ice,” Kopitar noted. “He plays in all situations for them. We’re going to have make sure that we make it hard on him because he plays a lot of minutes and we want to make sure that those are hard minutes.”
Kopitar will see a lot of Karlsson in this series, but he has no intention of doing anything different than he did during his Hart Trophy-worthy regular season.
“[I just have to] do more of the same that I was doing during the regular season,” Kopitar added. “Just play my game. I’ve been here before. I’ve had decent success in the playoffs, too. But right now, it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter how you do it. It’s just a matter of winning. As much emphasis as there is on individual numbers and skill and everything, it usually comes down to the team game, something we feel very strongly about.”
Two problems that have come back to bite the Kings this season are turnovers and allowing the first goal in a game. But the two issues have been inextricably connected.
“[We need] to have an awareness to managing the puck early in hockey games,” said Stevens. We can’t put ourselves behind in a hockey game when there’s situations that we can clearly control better, and that’s just managing the puck better. You don’t want to make a habit of getting behind in the playoffs and make a habit of it.”
Martinez observed that playing with a sense of urgency has a lot to do with that.
“We always talk about having to play our team game going into the playoffs” he said. “Other than that, first period [against the Dallas Stars], the last few games of the year, when we’ve played with a sense of urgency, we’ve been successful. That’s one thing we [need to] focus on. Going into their building on the road, we’re going to have to play with a sense of urgency as soon as that puck drops.”
“There’s going to be games where we give up the first goal,” said Brown. “It’s what you do after that—how you play going forward—we’ve had a lot of tests on that this year. We’ve responded well to adversity after we put ourselves in tough situations. We’ve always been able to, kind of, weather the storm and find a way to stay in games to give ourselves a chance at the end.”
“Scoring the first goal is definitely beneficial for us, but it’s going to be perfect,” added Brown. “You just focus on your game. Sometimes you score the first goal, sometimes you won’t. I don’t know if we weren’t ready or what it was during the regular season, but I don’t think that’ll be the case.”
Another area that could be an issue for both teams is having several young players in the lineup who lack Stanley Cup Playoff experience.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here [who will get] their first taste [of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey], as well, said Martinez. “They’ve got a lot of guys over there—it’ll be their first season playing together, too. But there’s still a lot of playoff experience [in the Golden Knights dressing room]. James Neal went to the Stanley Cup Final last year. Fleury won a couple of times the last few years. There’s playoff experience and new guys on both sides. Will it be a factor? I guess we’ll find out.”
“We’ve talked about it all along that playoff mode has been in effect here for quite a while now, where every game matters,” said Stevens. “I think our young guys have a good understanding about how hard it is to play at this time of year and how important it is for them to be big contributors to our success. But even though this is their first experience with this type of atmosphere, there’s enough veteran experience in the locker room to help these guys.”
But how much help do the young players need?
“There’s not really much to say [to the young players],” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “You kind of get out there for the start of the game and you realize how much better the atmosphere is and how much more it means. All the little things in playoffs matter a lot more than they do in the regular season, when it comes down to blocking shots, throwing pucks at the net—a lot of crappy goals go in [during the] playoffs. That’s just how it kind of is, so you’ve got to throw pucks at the net. A lot of lucky bounces happen.”
“There’s not much we can say,” added Doughty. “Just have fun, enjoy the moment. At the same time, do whatever it takes to get the job done. It’s going to take [doing] all the little things.”
The Golden Knights have a lot of skill. They can score and boy, can they skate. The Kings should have a slight advantage in goal. The Golden Knights do not have a defenseman who can matchup with Doughty and the Kings have a big advantage down the middle over a seven-game series. The lack of Stanley Cup Playoff experience among each team’s younger players is not likely to play a big role, but the advantage goes to the Kings, given their veteran core that has been there for two Stanley Cup Championships.
Kings in six.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, shown here during a recent practice. Photo: Gann Matsuda/FrozenRoyalty.net.
Frozen Royalty by Gann Matsuda is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. You may copy, distribute and/or transmit any story or audio content published on this site under the terms of this license, but only if proper attribution is indicated. The full name of the author and a link back to the original article on this site are required. Photographs, graphic images, and other content not specified are subject to additional restrictions. Additional information is available at: Frozen Royalty – Licensing and Copyright Information.