Golden Knights Defense Cracking Under Pressure

Up until this point of their season, it looked like no one could stop the Vegas Golden Knights. The team has handled all adversity thrown at them every step of the way. But now, in the most important games of the season, parts of their team have started to falter.

Vegas has unquestionably been the better team in all three of their previous series. However, they have relied heavily on the goaltending ability of Marc-Andre Fleury to win them games. It has worked in the past, with Fleury having been the biggest star in multiple games in each series, but that strategy also relied on the Golden Knights playing good team defense. Now the defense is showing holes. Even with Fleury still pulling out highlight-reel stops, Vegas is being taken advantage of in their own zone.

Vegas Golden Knights, Marc-Andre Fleury
Less than two minutes into Game 3 Fleury made a fantastic stop on Ovechkin after his defense let up a two-on-one breakaway chance. (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Shea Theodore’s Bad Night

A prime example of what I’m talking about is Shea Theodore’s play in Game 3. He holds almost all the blame for the second and third Washington goals. On Washington’s second goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov, Theodore broke his stick on a shot and then proceeded to pinch down towards center ice anyways, causing a two-on-one that Kuznetsov cashed in on to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead midway through the second period. It was a mistake that showed his inexperience. He has only played 152 games at the NHL level and is bound to have mistakes like those, but it came at a terrible time for the team.

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Then he made another rookie mistake. After Theodore drew a tripping penalty late in the second period, the Golden Knights were on the power play when Capitals defender Matt Niskanen chopped the puck past Theodore at the point. Niskanen continued racing for the puck, but Theodore let up, assuming that Niskanen wasn’t giving chase. After Niskanen got past him, Fleury had to dive out of his crease to stop a breakaway, tripping Niskanen and getting a penalty in the process. Theodore’s mental lapse voided the Vegas power play and stunted their building momentum.

Theodore’s biggest mistake ended the game for Vegas. After Tomas Nosek capitalized on a brutal Braden Holtby giveaway to cut the Washington lead to one, Vegas began collecting opportunities. But with six minutes left in the game, Theodore fumbled a pass deep his own zone and gave the puck away to Jay Beagle, who backhanded the puck out in front where Devante Smith-Pelly cashed it in for a goal. The game ended 3-1, and the Golden Knights lost back-to-back games for the first time in these playoffs.

Gerard Gallant Stands Up for Theodore

After the game, head coach Gerard Gallant defended Theodore. He said of Theodore, “He made a couple mistakes, they ended up in the back of our net. A lot of guys make mistakes in hockey games and they don’t end up in the back of the net. Shea’s a 22-year-old kid who I love. He’s a great player.”

Gerard Gallant Vegas Golden Knights
Gallant may make changes to his lineup after two disappointing losses, but don’t expect Theodore to be one of the players in the press box. The defenseman has been one of Vegas’ best players during the playoffs and Gallant gives his players leeway (Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports)

Obviously Gallant is going to defend his players to the media. One of the biggest reasons his players like him so much is because of his tendency to forgive and forget when mistakes happen. Gallant doesn’t punish his players if he doesn’t think it will help.

Related: Gerard Gallant – From ‘The Island’ to ‘The ‘Strip’

That is why it was so noticeable when Gallant had Theodore himself serve the tripping penalty to Fleury. Even though that specific mistake did not lead to a goal, it was the least acceptable of the three. A bad pinching decision is going to happen with the way Theodore plays the game and whiffing on a pass happens to everyone, but the lack of awareness and effort showed on the play that led to Fleury tripping Niskanen is unacceptable.

Theodore is Only Part of the Problem

While the spotlight was on Theodore this game, he was not the only Vegas defenseman that has been exposed during the Stanley Cup Final. Brayden McNabb more than a few times in this series looks out of place on the first pairing with Nate Schmidt. The opening goal by Alex Ovechkin in Game 3 was a flukey sequence, but it certainly was not helped by McNabb skating around in front of Fleury like a chicken with its head cut off.

Brayden McNabb Golden Knights
Brayden McNabb is the weak link on the top defensive pairing with Nate Schmidt, and the Washington Capitals have noticed. Expect to see the Capitals attack his side of the ice more often. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite allowing fewer shots per game than in any other series, the Capitals offense is dissecting any mistakes Vegas makes. From allowing breakaways to leaving men open in front of the net, the Vegas defense has been uncharacteristically loose. Normally they let up significantly more shots per game but keep low danger shots down.

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During the regular season, Fleury faced the third least amount of high-danger shots from the 30 goalies that saw the most ice time. In the playoffs he has seen a significant amount more of high-danger shots, the difference being a jump in save percentage on those type of shots from .767 in the regular season to .910 in the playoffs. Fleury has bailed out his defense’s mistakes in the playoffs and now that he has started to come back down to Earth, their mistakes are that much more obvious.

Golden Knights’ Offense Can’t Escape Blame

None of that is to say the defense alone cost Vegas the game. After all, they only managed 22 shots on goal. They couldn’t seem to get any good chances on Holtby from below the hash marks as the Capitals players racked up blocked shots. In fact, the Capitals roster blocked more shots (26) than Holtby saw on the net (22). On top of that, the Golden Knights were absolutely dominated in the faceoff circle, winning only 37%.

The Golden Knights have a lot to work on before Game 4. In the post-game, Gallant mentioned the possibility of changing the lineup. That is something the team desperately needs at this point, being behind in a series for the first time and looking lifeless during the majority of Game 3. Expect a shuffling of players to occur before Game 4 starts on Monday, maybe even including a few player substitutes on ice. The Golden Knights need something to kick them back into gear or they will find themselves in the history books as the team that gave the Washington Capitals their first Stanley Cup.