Vegas

Investigating the Disappearance of Vegas’ First Line by Owen Kewell

By: Owen Kewell

The Golden Knights kept finding ways to pull it off. Driven by all-world goaltending, an opportunistic counter-attack, and the desire to prove the rest of the hockey world wrong (especially their former teams), the group that James Neal affectionately dubbed the ‘Golden Misfits’ put together a Cinderella run through the Western Conference and into the Stanley Cup Final.

Only midnight appears to be approaching faster than anticipated.

After a 6-2 loss at the hands of the Washington Capitals yesterday, the Golden Knights find themselves searching for answers as their first elimination game in franchise history looms. The last three games, which Vegas has lost by a combined score of 12-5, featured a team that appeared much different from the group we saw roll their way through the Western Conference and into a 1-0 Stanley Cup Final lead.

So what’s different?

Goaltending is the obvious answer. After posting a save percentage above .930% for each of the first three rounds, Fleury’s mark is a paltry .845% through four games in the Final. Anyone could point out that Fleury needs to be better, and while it’s not wrong, it’s not particularly insightful.

Instead, I wanted to investigate the play of Vegas’ other big guns, who have been similarly subpar in their recent string of losses. I’m referring to the Knights’ three-headed monster of a top line, which features William Karlsson between Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. These three have been catalysts for their team’s offense all season and are similarly 1-2-3 in team scoring for these playoffs.

The table below compares all-situations production of Vegas’ top line during the first 16 playoff games, which includes Rounds 1-3 and Game 1 of the Cup Final, versus their production in the last 3 games.

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We can clearly see that the group’s production has dropped off. While the trio was averaging well over one goal and three points per game through the first 16 games, they’ve managed only one goal and four points total in the last three games. Goals are low-frequency events by nature, though, so to properly evaluate their play in a sample as small as three games we need to look at the higher-frequency plays that lead to goals. The table below reflects even-strength play where Vegas’ 1st line is on the ice together.

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A few numbers jump out from the above table. While the top line is generating significantly more shot attempts than previously, they are producing fewer shots on goal. This means that a higher proportion of the line’s shot attempts are being blocked, and those that aren’t being blocked are missing the net more often. Only 38.3% of the line’s shot attempts in the last three games are reaching the net, which is down more than 10% from the previous 16 games.

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Elsewhere, the line’s event rates are down across the board. Per 60 minutes, Marchessault, Smith, and Karlsson are generating 4.86 fewer scoring chances, 1.19 fewer high danger chances, and 1.64 fewer goals than they did in the previous 16 games. Much of the reduced scoring can be explained by a decrease in the unit’s on-ice shooting percentage, but the line’s decreased scoring chance generation remains a worrying red flag.

Offensive production, or a lack thereof, does not exist in a vacuum. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the work that Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov have done in neutralizing Vegas’ top line. This pairing has been heavily leaned upon to shut down Vegas’ stars, especially in Games 3 and 4 when Washington had last change as the home team. Using William Karlsson and Dmitry Orlov as proxies for Vegas’ 1st line (VGK L1) and Washington’s 1st pairing (WSH P1), we can see what proportion of VGK L1’s 5-on-5 minutes were played against WSH P1 in each game thus far.

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Vegas’ lone victory came in the only game where their top line was able to play most of their even-strength minutes away from Washington’s top shutdown pairing. Since then, VGK L1 has seen a healthy dose of Orlov and Niskanen, and their production has suffered.

Whether attributable to a lack of execution or stellar opposing defense, the play of Vegas’ first line has been insufficient in their last three games. Their goal-scoring is down by more than half, fewer shot attempts are reaching Braden Holtby, and the line isn’t producing scoring chances at their usual rate.

For Vegas to begin climbing out of the hole they find themselves in, their top line will need to reverse these trends and find a way to produce. If they don’t manage to do so, the strike of midnight might be right around the corner.

All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick (https://www.naturalstattrick.com/)