LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — Work ethic, energy, intensity. However you define the principle of effort in the world of sport, the Golden Knights told us after losing Game 1 it was missing.
The major reason for the Winnipeg Jets’ 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round Stanley Cup playoff series is that the eighth seed from Canada outworked the Knights. The Western Conference’s top seed was outmuscled along the wall and in front, lost battles and races for loose pucks.
Jonathan Marchessault, one of the Knights’ most spirited forwards, had it right. Poor performance, he said. “We didn’t have 20 guys that wanted to compete, and it showed in our game.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy echoed the same thought: “Our entire game wasn’t at the level it needs to be to beat playoff-caliber teams.”
Agreed. Despite the Knights throwing plenty of body checks, especially early in Game 1, in the most important areas they were meek, like a kid cowering before the playground bully. So standing up to the bully is paramount if the Knights are to bounce back.
There is another element of concern entering Thursday’s Game 2 at T-Mobile Arena (7 p.m., TBS, AT&T SportsNet). It’s called “puck management,” so often given as a reason for poor play, the term is misunderstood.
On Wednesday’s off day, Marchessault suggested the term, citing specifically a lack of awareness offensively, including a power play that went 0-for-3. “Make the right play at the right time,” he said when asked about generating scoring chances. “Keep it simple.”
So much of sport is about decisions. In hockey, puck management covers so many of these decisions. Defining the term can be as simple as playing smartly, making intelligent choices with the puck.
Like sliding it along the boards, deep into the opponent’s zone, to make a clean line change. Or being patiently creative, as in a puck handler resisting the first choice — passing into traffic –but instead waiting to find a trailing teammate open for a highlight-reel goal.
Cassidy talked Wednesday about his players’ positive outlook, how they were quick during the season to correct things. The few times there were lulls, he said, the team needed only a short stretch of three or four games to make the fixes, Cassidy said.
“I think our guys understand,” the coach said about the urgency needed for Game 2. “It’s not won or lost after one game. We’re not going to define ourselves by one hockey game.”
But in the Knights’ playoff history, poor puck management has been among the reasons for downfall. Forcing plays, putting the puck in bad spots, posessions of panic. In the regular season, a team has time, that short stretch of games, to make adjustments, including bad decisions with the puck. In the playoffs, teams needing that much time for fixes find themselves shifting their competitive energy from the ice rink to the golf course.
So if the work ethic is even the rest of the way, this series will come down to which team is smarter with the puck. That is the NHL these days, mind you. So much parity means teams that play smarter most often come out ahead.
So watch Thursday night which team cleanly handles the puck. Are passes crisp, tape to tape? Watch which team is better at getting the puck through the neutral zone, which team is more successful getting it out of one zone and into the other. And which team holds onto it to create more time of possession in the offensive zone.
Cassidy thought the power play lacked execution, especially the man advantage in the third period when the game was still close. Players didn’t move the puck quickly enough to create clean shots, he said. That’s about decisions, puck management.
Perhaps the most astute observation after Game 1 came from Mark Stone, the captain who had been out since Jan. 12 because of back surgery. Stone might have felt rusty from the time off, behind a step or more in a high-paced Stanley Cup playoff game.
But his reasoning was polished on why the Knights struggled so much to generate offense. Getting 17 shots on goal won’t win most nights. Two in the final period won’t cut it either.
“I think we were a little stubborn, right?” Stone said. The Knights couldn’t generate speed or a forecheck because their choices in the neutral zone were poor.
“We tried to keep pushing through the middle, through the neutral zone,” Stone said. “They do a good job of clogging up the middle of the ice. … So maybe we do a better job of holding onto the puck, getting some O-zone time.”
So watch closely. Then ask yourself as Game 2 unfolds: Which team is playing smarter?