VEGAS PLAYOFFS: Avalanche Outclassed Golden Knights on Sunday in More Ways Than One

May 30, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Vegas Golden Knights left wing William Carrier (28) checks Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar (8) in the second period of game one in the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Avalanche play hockey the way it’s meant to be played. The puck moves at breakneck speed as skaters fly around the ice, dekeing around defenders while they look for openings in the defense. Over the last two decades, the NHL has made rule changes to encourage this style of play and when combined with a new generation of players that are uber-skilled, we are left with the Avalanche. It’s something the Vegas Golden Knights learned first-hand in a lopsided 7-1 drubbing on Sunday night.

The Golden Knights are not going to beat the Avalanche by beating them up, especially since they can’t catch them while play is on, only getting shots in after the whistle has blown.

The first two periods of Game 1 between the Avalanche and the Golden Knights were a masterclass in modern offense by Colorado. Defensemen jumping into the rush, players picking corners at full-speed, cross-ice passes to wide-open shooters, the Avalanche played an exciting brand of hockey that gave them a 4-0 lead only halfway through the game.

Players like Nathan Mackinnon, Cale Makar, and Mikko Rantanen all showed why they are widely regarded as some of the most exciting players in the league. It’s easy for anyone, even non-hockey fans, to marvel at the things they are able to do with the puck while skating at such high speeds, or the way they manipulate their edges to weave in and out of defenders.

For a league that has been trying desperately to grow the game, it’s encouraging to see a team built like the Avalanche experience success. That’s the type of hockey that will get new fans interested and excited about the game, and the more experience the Avalanche experience, the more teams around the league will attempt to replicate their formula.

vegas golden knights colorado avalanche
Colorado Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrates his goal against the Vegas Golden Knights the second period of game one in the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Ball Arena. Photo: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately after two periods of world-class hockey, the game dissolved into a series of questionable physical plays. The Golden Knights, who were well out of the game by this point, decided that since they couldn’t keep up with the skill of the Avalanche, they would try to beat them up instead. The third period turned into the Golden Knights mauling Avalanche players after every whistle as the referees quickly lost control.

It was a disappointing way for the Golden Knights to vent their frustration. Frustrated with being so thoroughly outplayed in every aspect of the game, frustrated in seeing one of their teammates leave the game after being on the receiving end of a big hit, the Golden Knights resorted to more bush league tactics that resulted in a nine minute Avalanche power play.

The justification for the Golden Knights actions

There are two points that will be used by hockey fans to defend the Golden Knights physical play in the last period:

  1. The Golden Knights needed to make their presence felt and let the Avalanche know that they will not be walked over despite losing 7-1.
  2. The Golden Knights need to stand up for their teammate Mattias Janmark who didn’t return to the game after being on the receiving end of a hit from Ryan Graves, which did result in a minor penalty.

As far as the first point goes, the classic hockey thinking is that if you’re going to lose by such a lopsided score, you might as well give the other team a few bruises while they’re at it. The issue with the way that the Golden Knights did it is that they couldn’t catch the Avalanche with any hits, instead they were taking liberties after the whistle that eventually got them penalized.

As for the Janmark injury, having an issue with the hit and taking matters into your own hands is acceptable. Ryan Reaves running around taking match penalties as he knees on a player’s neck is over the line and it costed him two games as he was suspended after the incident.

Ryan Reaves gets suspended….but it might have been too late

Late in the game, Reaves crosschecked Avalanche goalie Phillip Grubauer before tackling Ryan Graves to the ground and kneeling on his head. The play clearly crossed the line and could have resulted in a nasty injury for Graves. This was the sequence that led to the nine-minute power play for the Avalanche.

All this only one game after Reaves threw a dangerous hit that sent Minnesota Wild defender Ryan Suter face-first into the goalpost. He could have easily faced disciplinary action for that hit but alas he got away without punishment, showing, once again, the unpredictable nature of the NHL Department of Player Safety.

Reaves makes a living by blurring the line between dirty and physical but recently he has been crossing that line far too often. He was lucky to receive just a two-game suspension as it could have easily been much longer, especially considering his history and the fact that his actions were “retaliation” for the earlier hit on Janmark.

The Golden Knights are not going to beat the Avalanche by beating them up, especially since they can’t catch them while play is on, only getting shots in after the whistle has blown. They need to use the speed and size they possess to play a more structured game and fix up their leaky defense, not chase the Avalanche around between whistles.

The dirty stuff that they showed at the end of last game was an embarrassment, a self-admission of the fact that they aren’t on the same level as the Avalanche and could only resort to weak tactics. If they continue that going forward, they stand no chance in this series.

It’s now up to the Golden Knights to show they can beat the Avalanche – not just try to beat them up.

Noah Strang is an NHL writer and columnist for Vegas Sports Today, FC Hockey, and ‘Nucks Misconduct.