June 7, 2023

The Vegas Golden Knights managed to pick up their eighth straight win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (Nov. 8) after Reilly Smith buried the 4-3 goal in overtime, bringing their record to an NHL-best 12-2-0 to start the season. 

Smith managed to score twice in this contest, which was also his 700th career game in the NHL, a milestone he shared with defenseman Alec Martinez. This was also the final meeting of the season for these two teams with the Golden Knights taking both games and earning their first-ever win at Scotiabank Arena.

The Maple Leafs entered this game on a hot streak of their own, winning three straight, including games against the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes, two of the top 10 teams in the league. Rookie Logan Thompson was the starting goaltender for Vegas and made 28 saves to earn his seventh win of the season, while third-string goaltender Erik Kallgren started for the Maple Leafs as both Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov remain injured.

Golden Knights’ Opportunistic Offense

In comparison to their previous matchup earlier in the season, which was one of the most dominant performances the Golden Knights have put together so far, the Maple Leafs played a much tighter game. They clearly recognized that there was little room for error against a team this hot, and their style of play reflected it for the majority of the game.

Despite being outshot 31-20 and playing most of the time in their own zone, the Golden Knights took advantage of a lot of unforced errors by the Maple Leafs. In the opening minute of the game, Will Carrier was sprung on a breakaway after Maple Leafs defenseman Rasmus Sandin bobbled a pass at the blue line, which led to the opening goal from Nicolas Roy, who buried the loose puck after Carrier’s attempt. This was also evident in Jack Eichel’s 2-1 goal that came in the final two minutes of the first period.

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Eichel was able to jump on the whiffed pass from defenseman Timothy Liljegren, use his body to overtake the puck with force, and finish off a pretty passing play from his linemates Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone. While this was a great sequence of offense to follow up a brutal turnover, those chances rarely ever present themselves in an NHL game.

They even managed to score short-handed with just eight minutes left in the game after William Nylander lost his balance and misdirected the puck into open ice, sending Reilly Smith and the red-hot William Karlsson on an odd-man rush which led to the Golden Knights tying the game 3-3.

This is definitely not the type of offensive game they envisioned they would be playing. As teams begin to tighten up defensively and become a lot cleaner in their puck movement, the Golden Knights can’t afford to sit back and wait for these chances to present themselves.

Bruce Cassidy’s Defense Remains Strong

While the Maple Leafs’ offense dictated most of the game, there are still a lot of positive things to take away in relation to how the Golden Knights have been able to maintain their defensive strategies.

The Golden Knights have been outshot in just five of their 14 games played this season, and have managed to win four of those games. While the amount of shots given up doesn’t tell the full story of how a team plays defensively, it proves that the systems Vegas is using are able to withstand high offensive pressure and still be effective. 

Coach Bruce Cassidy has the team currently running a 1-2-2 defense in the neutral zone, meaning that one forward pressures the opposing puck carrier while the rest of the skaters sit back and cover any openings that may lead to odd-man rushes. This has been extremely effective for the Golden Knights so far, and is one reason why they were able to prevent Toronto from gaining any momentum in transition.

Bruce Cassidy Vegas Golden Knights
Bruce Cassidy, Vegas Golden Knights (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

However, what has been the most impressive part of their defensive game so far, and what could be an early indication for this success to continue, is their lack of mistakes. This team isn’t turning over the puck in their own zone very often, and when they do, their defensive zone strategy keeps the pressure far away from their net. The defensemen also aren’t getting overly involved when playing offense, which allows them to remain structured when opponents are breaking out.

Related: Golden Knights’ Analytics Showing Bruce Cassidy’s Positive Impact

It’s easy for coaches to tell players how they want their brand of hockey to be played, but to be able to adapt and make smart plays in real-time when things don’t go your way is a huge part of what makes good teams great. Head coach Bruce Cassidy deserves all the credit in the world for how he has been able to give this team a defensive identity, but the intelligence of the players shouldn’t be overlooked.

Final Thoughts

It wasn’t pretty, but they got it done. Despite their lack of offensive production at even strength, the Golden Knights capitalized on every mistake the Maple Leafs made, and were able to earn the extra point in overtime. The best teams find ways to win at all costs, even on nights when they aren’t at their best.

The Golden Knights will look to continue their winning streak when they wrap up their five-game road trip on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres before heading back home to face the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.

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