Day 35 of 2018 Stanley Quips: Nealing and Dealing

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AP Photo/David Becker

Welp, that game wasn’t any boring at all. Last night’s game in Las Vegas was everything you could have hoped for and more. You had a shocking goal within the first minute of the game. You had Marc-Andre Fleury being peak Marc-Andre Fleury. You had Mark Scheifele being a Conn-Smythe contender and a failure to the eyes of Mike Milbury, and a disgrace to Canada to the eyes of Don Cherry all at the same time. You had Jonathan Marchessault doing Jonathan Marchessault things. Lastly, Dustin Byfuglien decided to handle not one, but two Golden Knights players in a scrum because I don’t know what else he can’t do, really.

But yeah, this game was crazy in all facets. And its why I’ve loved this series more than anything else. Both teams just deliver with their best blows every night. The one thing I will say is we haven’t hit that point where Connor Hellebuyck has spread his wings and carried the Jets to a series win. Now that is a very NBC Sports thing for me to say, especially when you put into massive context that he made 47 SAVES in Game 1 of the Nashville series. But where things stand, Hellebuyck has only had eight quality starts out of 15. That’s basically league-average and while his counterpart is owning the city at the palm of his hand, Hellebuyck ended up having this happen to him after his team gave him temporary relief with a game-tying goal seconds beforehand. Hellebuyck’s 92.9% save percentage is still very solid this entire postseason, but we’re at a time where the cream of the crop rises to the top at this stage. If he doesn’t raise his game any further, Winnipeg is in trouble.

Along with that, the Nikolaj Ehlers injury is not nothing at all. As a result of his absence, all the left wingers below him moved up a line. With Brandon Tanev now moved up to the second line of Paul Stastny and Patrick Laine, it seemed more like a hodge-podge of forwards, rather than a constructed trio that had specific roles to make each other better. That’s not to say Tanev is a slouch. After all, his 50.9% puck possession while dealing with the worst zone starts on the team in the regular season makes him a valuable piece. He’s just not someone that you want if you want to maintain certain characteristics for a line that contains Stastny and Laine.

Speaking of Laine, man has he been struggling. During the series, he has a team-worst 40.4% puck possession. Along with that, his stat line has only seen him with four goals and seven assists in 15 games. None of those numbers are bad at all, especially for a 19-year old in his first trip in the playoffs. But this is the second leading goal scorer in the NHL we’re talking about and he’s only been able to cash in twice at even strength. His shooting percentage only sits at 8.3%, and that is a massive decrease to the 18% we’re used to seeing in his young career. But it just goes to show right now that we haven’t seen enough out of Laine when the chips are going down for him.

Lastly, man has the Jacob Trouba-Jake Morrisey defense pair been eaten alive! Just look at this Marchessault goal to start the game and tell me that that has not been a microcosm of Trouba this series. This is supposed to one of the best defensemen in the sport, a foundational piece to team USA in the 2020 World Cup of Hockey, and a Norris Trophy candidate if things break right for him. Even if this postseason is said and done, Trouba is still looking at 53.6% of his shot attempt shares going in his favor. But in this series alone, that number has plummeted to 45.0% and Vegas’ top line just seems way too fast for him.

In some ways also, Trouba is starting to be a bit too injury prone. He’s now had three instances where he’s missed 15 games or more due to a long-standing injury, including a concussion this season. As a result, you’re just not hearing his name among the echelon of top young defensemen. But at 24, you have to wonder if he’ll have enough time for him to reach his ceiling as a former top-ten draft pick.

But in the meantime, the James Neal-led second line stepped up in a major way yesterday. Sure, Neal was able to cash in off of a pass from some great forechecking by Erik Haula on Vegas’ second goal, but it was Neal who returned the favor with a great behind-the-net pass to Alex Tuch for Vegas’ third goal. That was enough to give the Golden Knights the victory and it was all thanks to them providing the secondary scoring that, while not definite at times, has been delivered all season to free up the top line.

And like all the other games, gaining such a lead before the halfway point of each contest has been enough to decide the winner. Sure, Fleury’s remarkable saves were the reason Vegas had such a definitive margin of victory, but that doesn’t ignore the fact that we haven’t had a game where the two teams have traded shots from beginning to end. If anything, this series has been more about multiple blinking contests with the hopes that one can hold their nerve the most in short order.

But like all postseason series, each game tells a different tale. Winnipeg will certainly hope that is true because they will be in deep trouble if they lose Game 4. So it will be fascinating if we still see the same trends from them continue or if head coach Paul Maurice makes see some adjustments for the first time this postseason. Until then, everything that’s been happening to Vegas has been staying Vegas’ way.

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