The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t necessarily have more answers for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Game 1 than the Los Angeles Kings did in the first round. However, the Golden Knights otherwise dominated the opening contest to such an extreme that they convincingly won 6-4 and overcame an incredible four-goal effort from Draisaitl.
You’d think the team that allowed Draisaitl to score four goals would be the one needing to go back to the drawing board. Instead, it’s Edmonton that must search for answers (and swallow the regret of losing a game where its biggest stars gave them so much).
Leon Draisaitl has scored 9 of the Oilers 27 goals during their 7-game losing skid in Game 1s
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) May 4, 2023
Another history-making night for Draisaitl
About four minutes into the first period, the Oilers scored a 1-0 goal in the way you might be able to dream up exactly in your head. McDavid kept creating room, then sent a tremendous and quick cross-seam pass to Draisaitl.
With that, Draisaitl made personal history, as eight playoff goals set a new career-high. Rather than settling for that, he’d do much more. One evening after Joe Pavelski’s historic four-goal night in a losing effort, Draisaitl managed four goals of his own for Edmonton in its Game 1. It was the first four-goal playoff game for an Oilers player since Jari Kurri did it in 1987.
After Draisaitl’s 1-0 goal, the Golden Knights rattled off three of their own, but his second goal in the closing seconds of the first period shrunk Vegas’s lead to 3-2, giving Edmonton hope amid overall frustration. It was also awfully cheeky.
The bank shot by Draisaitl cuts the lead to one! 🏦 pic.twitter.com/mBnALpDrGJ
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 4, 2023
When Draisaitl made it a hat trick, the game was suddenly — and briefly — tied 3-3 in the third period.
If you want an idea about how quickly Vegas countered Edmonton’s pushes, consider that Draisaitl’s fourth goal (in the same period as his hat trick) merely reduced another Vegas lead to 5-4. Draisaitl’s fourth goal looked quite a bit like his first of Game 1, coming off another great cross-seam McDavid helper.
Stunning stuff, but not enough.
Vegas aggravates Edmonton at even strength
Again, it was striking how the Golden Knights responded to what might leave lesser teams flat-footed.
As a reminder, the Golden Knights tied it 1-1 just 40 seconds after Draisaitl’s power-play opener. This goal was just one of the examples for those who are picking on Oilers defenseman Vincent Desharnais, as Ivan Barbashev created a turnover and then slammed in the tally.
Barbie on the board! 💈💈💈 pic.twitter.com/vBkZCw2ASm
— z - Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) May 4, 2023
Stunningly, the Golden Knights burned the Oilers in transition to make it 2-1 about five minutes later. A Mark Stone power-play goal late in the first ballooned the lead to 3-1. It wasn’t as much of a dagger thanks to that big-but-not-big-enough 3-2 goal by Draisaitl, but there was no denying that Vegas was much better to begin Game 1.
All things considered, the Oilers were lucky the score remained 3-2 in the Golden Knights’ favor after the second period, as Vegas once again was superior. Things looked even more fortunate with Draisaitl’s 3-3 marker early in the third.
The Golden Knights responded with another set of stunning strikes, as Barbashev and Chandler Stephenson found the back of the net within minutes, restoring the two-goal edge.
Edmonton made a push after Draisaitl scored a fourth goal (lowering the deficit to 5-4), but a desperation comeback was derailed after the Oilers got caught with too many men on the ice, and a Jack Eichel empty-netter made it elementary.
That even-strength edge wasn’t your eyes playing tricks on you. During the first and second periods, the Golden Knights generated a 4-1 advantage in high-danger chances and dominated the expected goals difference. The Oilers held a 7-2 high-danger chance advantage in the third frame but are still in need of the deepest soul-searching after Game 1.
The game-within-the-game: Targeting Stone, Can Vegas stay disciplined?
As the Sportsnet crew noted during the first intermission, the Oilers were keenly aware that Stone is coming off his latest back surgery. More than once, the star winger received shots to his back, usually in the form of pointed cross-checks.
Stone returned to action surprisingly quickly from his latest back surgery so it’s worth watching how that plays out. Ideally, the NHL would try to deter such “tactics” (maybe staple an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of a cross-check?), but that’s just not how things generally go.
During the 2022-23 regular season, the Golden Knights were shorthanded 2.38 times per game on average, which was easily the least in the league. The Oilers, meanwhile, were sixth-worst with 3.39 per game. The Oilers could hold huge special teams advantages in this series, but that difference might be less pronounced if the Golden Knights end up with extra opportunities.
By the end of Game 1, the Oilers scored two power-play goals on just three chances. The Golden Knights went 2-for-4, and while the quality of the second one may be a bit misleading (Eichel scored on an empty net), it was just as important that Edmonton’s ability to press for the tying goal was greatly hampered.
One increasingly credible (conspiracy?) theory about playoff officiating is that refs aren’t concerned as much about disparities in penalty calls as they are about a difference in power-play goals scored. The Oilers would likely take a series where both teams are penalized frequently if the calls are near-even. That’s especially true if they can’t solve these even-strength riddles.
Things could get iffy for the Oilers if the Golden Knights stay out of the box, especially if some of those cross-checks on Stone start to draw more whistles.