The Vegas Golden Knights were eliminated from the playoffs by the Dallas Stars in five games. Being touted as early favorites to win the Stanley Cup, Vegas had a lot of pressure riding on them. Ultimately, they were able to advance to their second Western Conference Final in three years. Their early success in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs was short lived as coaching decisions, lack of offense and off-ice drama ended the Golden Knights’ chance at the Cup.
Peter DeBoer took over the coaching duties for the Golden Knights about halfway through the 2019-20 season. At the time, Vegas had reached the first real form of adversity during the regular season. However, the decision to bring in DeBoer paid off as the Golden Knights were able to rebound and become the top seed in the Pacific. The team that he inherited had arguably one of the deepest rosters in terms of speed, skill, and aggression.
DeBoer immediately had eyes on him as Robin Lehner was named the starter for the playoffs. Although this decision ended up being the correct one, his management of the goaltending situation could have been better. DeBoer did not use Marc-Andre Fleury as much as the fans and media thought he would.
“I believe we are going to need both and both guys are going to play,” DeBoer said when asked about who would be in net for the playoffs.
An argument can be made that Lehner should not have played Game 6 against the Vancouver Canucks. Coming off the 2-1 loss, he could have taken a rest. The Golden Knights were up three games to two against the Canucks and could afford to let their starter rest. Fleury had also played in the series and recorded a 5-3 win with 28 saves in Game 4. If the Golden Knights were to win Game 6 with Fleury in net, it would have allowed Lehner ample time to be ready for either Game 7 or Game 1 of the next series.
Another decision that ultimately cost the Golden Knights was DeBoer’s unwillingness to adapt. Throughout each series, Vegas had periods of time where they were snakebit and could not score. This applied to both the power play and even strength. In the Dallas series especially, the Golden Knights did not have success on the power play. A simple solution could have been to flip the personnel around and try to get new looks. However, the units stayed the same for the majority of the series and Vegas ended up scoring only three times out of 22 opportunities (13%).
Despite the criticism against DeBoer, riding the hot hand in Lehner ultimately gave the Golden Knights the best opportunity to win the Cup. Lehner was lights out during the entirety of the playoffs. He had four shutouts, a 1.99 goals against average and a .917 save percentage.
Lack of Production
Over the course of the playoffs, players can be expected to have highs and lows. There can be times where they are on fire for a couple of games and then cold for a few. However, this cold streak hit the Golden Knights’ top two lines all at once. During the regular season, Vegas saw their top six forwards produce regularly. This was not the case during the latter stages of the playoffs.
Players such as Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and Max Pacioretty were noticeably cold during the second half of the playoffs. Smith and Marchessault started off on fire as they produced 19 points in the team’s first 12 games. However, the duo only combined for five points and one goal in the last eight. This sudden drop off in points could have come from a number of different places, but it started when Thatcher Demko took over the net in the Canucks series. It is possible that the young goaltender got in the heads and rattled the confidence of the two wingers.
Pacioretty, on the other hand, did not have the type of playoffs the Golden Knights might have expected from him. Although he came into the bubble late with an injury, the leading scorer for the Golden Knights only managed to record eight points. His lack of offense was noticeable on the power play as he only scored twice. This is shocking as, during the season, he led the team in power-play goals.
The lack of goal scoring did not just come from these players but from the team as a whole. The Golden Knights’ goals per game saw a sizable decrease in the last eight games they played. Throughout the first 12 games of the playoffs, the team was averaging 3.75 goals per game. This dropped to 1.5 goals per game in the last eight. A noticeable 2.25 decrease can explain why the Golden Knights were eliminated. If not for the play of Lehner, the team could have easily been playing from behind more often than they were. Only giving up eight goals to the Stars, Lehner kept his team in the game. He also forced overtime twice in the Western Conference Final.
Although the Golden Knights say it did not have an effect on their team, Allan Walsh’s tweet of Fleury being stabbed in the back could have made an impact. The tweet brought up new questions that probably weren’t meant to be asked until the offseason came around. Suddenly, the Golden Knights were forced to make statements about the actions of an agent. This could have taken their minds off the task at hand.
This controversial tweet seemed to follow the Golden Knights throughout the entirety of the playoffs. No matter which goalie played, the tweet was brought up. If Lehner lost, it was brought up to say what if Walsh was right. If Fleury lost, it was brought up as a distraction to the locker room. Ultimately the tweet did more harm than what might have been originally intended. Now, Vegas has to assess their goalie situation and make a decision regarding both players’ futures.
Ultimately, the Golden Knights have a lot to be proud about following their departure from the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They were able to secure the top seed in the Western Conference after the lengthy pause in the season. In addition to this, they saw the emergence of two possible superstars on their roster. Both Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore proved their worth.
Tuch led the team in goals with eight. Theodore led the team in points with 19. Both of these players have bright futures within Vegas and their ability to thrive in the playoffs will be beneficial to the Golden Knights for many years. Lastly, the team reached their second Conference Final in three years. As an expansion team, to do this within the team’s first three seasons is impressive and the Golden Knights should be considered early favorites for the Stanley Cup next season.