With all due respect to Phil Kessel, the Vegas Golden Knights’ dramatic 4-3 season-opening win over the Los Angeles Kings made it clear who is the club’s most important off-season addition: new head coach Bruce Cassidy. While a maddening power play and a flawed defensive effort showed there remains work to be done, the early returns on Cassidy’s style and system are very encouraging.
There is a lot to like coming out of Tuesday night’s performance. Playing on the road against a division rival who made the playoffs last season, Jack Eichel looked the part of a No. 1 center poised for a big season, William Karlsson looked invigorated, Reilly Smith looked aggressive, and Mark Stone provided the late-game heroics.
Still, the most important takeaway from Tuesday night was Cassidy’s game plan and how the players executed it. Here’s what we saw in game one of 82.
Golden Knights Ice Balanced Lines
The preseason offered hints that Cassidy would shake up the forward corps, and game one offered confirmation of that. Sure, it was only one game, but each of the top three lines recorded an even-strength goal, and with no key absences up front (sorry, Nolan Patrick), what we saw against the Kings should give us an idea of the plan moving forward.
Gone (for now, anyway) is the pairing of Eichel and Stone, as well as the long-standing ‘Misfit’ line of Smith, Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Instead, Eichel spent most of the night centering Smith and Kessel, Stone took the wing alongside Chandler Stephenson and Brett Howden, and Karlsson and Marchessault reunited on a dangerous third line with the sparsely used Michael Amadio. As expected, Nicolas Roy centered Keegan Kolesar and Paul Cotter on the fourth line.
The attempt at balance is clear – last season’s top scorer (Marchessault) is on the third line, the second-leading scorer (Stephenson) is on the second, and Eichel, arguably the club’s top forward, assumes first-line center duties. A key to this balanced approach will be Kessel. The veteran sniper didn’t hit the scoresheet in his Golden Knights debut (he had an assist taken away on Eichel’s goal), but he recorded three shots and will clearly get his chances to produce under Cassidy.
Crowding the Crease
The Golden Knights don’t lack size, so their inability to establish a presence in front of the net and hold onto the puck in traffic was a curious flaw in 2021-22. The first game of the 2022-23 season went a long way towards addressing that deficiency; even Cassidy noted that “we were trying to get the interior all night” (from ‘Mark Stone delivers, other takeaways from the Golden Knights’ thrilling opening-night win’, Jesse Granger, The Athletic, 10/12/22).
Those efforts yielded results. The Golden Knights’ aggressiveness drew five Kings penalties on the night, and while the Vegas power play remains a work in progress, Karlsson did register the club’s lone goal with the man advantage in the third period by deflecting an Alex Pietrangelo shot from in close. Likewise, Eichel’s goal to start the third came off of a juicy rebound after the 25-year-old planted himself in front of the net.
Stone rightly deserved to be celebrated for his game-winning goal with just 24.9 seconds left in regulation, but the goal would not have been possible without Howden’s bee-line towards the net. He managed to occupy two Kings defenders and still got close enough to LA netminder Jonathan Quick to probably impact his preparedness on the Stone shot.
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Golden Knights Power Play
As noted, the power play took a while to get going and only produced one goal on five attempts, but there were signs of encouragement. Vegas controlled possession throughout the game, but particularly with a King in the box (save for a disastrous man-advantage effort mid-way through the second period). Not only did that help them challenge Quick with a whopping 51 shots, but strong efforts on the power play directly contributed to the Eichel goal, which came just seconds after a penalty to Kevin Fiala had expired.
When the effort wasn’t there, the Golden Knights’ new head coach made sure his team knew it. Stone acknowledged as much, admitting, “Our power play got a little talking-to between periods, and we stepped up there in the third.” As he demonstrated throughout his time with the Boston Bruins, Cassidy isn’t shy about getting vocal when necessary. This time, it worked out pretty well.
No, the Golden Knights will not garner 51 shots 82 times this season, nor will a dramatic goal off a turnover in the final 25 seconds happen on a nightly basis. Yet, Cassidy’s system already seems to be producing effective and potentially sustainable trends that could help make the team formidable once again.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.