Now that I’ve laid out the key points that make Vegas a powerhouse contender for the cup in the last post, it’s time to explore a few weaknesses inherent to their playstyle.
Each and every system in hockey is designed to excel in a specific situation or aspect of the game but their still hasn’t been an unbeatable system that covers everything. Even teams like the Knights, who have a balanced roster built to put opponents in uncomfortable positons are beatable. In my opinion, matchups are an area in hockey that still has tons of untapped potential for a competitive advantage. Using WAR to find the “best” overall players is great, but understanding weak points in matchups is likely the key to explaining what current predictive models describe as random noise.
Speed on the Counter-Attack
The first way to beat Vegas is through counter attacking their forecheck with remarkable speed. Check out the last post for a more detailed look at the Knights forecheck, but essentially they use a highly aggressive 5 man swarm on the attack. The fact that they commit everybody forward to maintain numerical control over space makes it hard to play them in the defensive zone. However, this also means that the space behind is open. Once you beat the forecheck, an opportunity to beat the third forward with speed and isolate the defenders arises.
Thus far in the playoffs, the Blackhawks are the only opponent Vegas has faced that has the talent to win races and attack. I’ve gone through the Blackhawks counter-attacking roster build and style here, but it’s extremely effective at springing into the rush. Chicago’s woeful defence ruined any chance they had at actually beating the Knights, but the isolating defenders and scoring off the rush wasn’t a problem.
The Canucks specifically did not have the capacity to attack off the rush. This forced them to turtle defensively leading to the lower than 30% chance share in the series. Exceptional goaltending pushed the series to 7, but the Canucks did not have the speed to realistically beat the Golden Knights.
The fundamentals of this approach are: create an offensive-zone turnover, attack with speed before they have their shape in order to isolate defenders and remove their constant numerical advantage. A counter-attacking team like Chicago with reliable defence would lead to a fascinating match-up for the Knights. Too bad we didn’t get to see VGK-COL in the conference final.
Trap to Force Mistakes
The other approach that I believe could beat the Knights will be Dallas’s bread and butter in the conference finals. A trap style forecheck that blocks the transition creates an opportunity for a goal due to Vegas’ defencemen’s commitment to the offence and five-man unit.
This once again stems from their 5-man approach. Vegas contain space but also lets some open to be taken advantage of.
Some examples of this happening are seen in each of their first two series’.
Consistently creating these chances was tough for Chicago and Vancouver but feeds directly in Dallas’ style. The 1-1-3 neutral zone forecheck as shown above is taken from the Stars’ shape. Game one, the blue defensive wall in the graphic was extremely effective and led to a 1-0 defensive win. Game two, the Knights beat the forecheck and established their game.
Beating the Knights will be tough but the Stars have a style that gives them a better chance of success than CHI or VAN. The neutral zone forecheck will have to be rock solid because once the Knights get in, the Stars will be hard-pressed to find the speed necessary to counter from deep.