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Photo Credit: Gerry Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Tape: How Vegas’ quick transition game is wreaking havoc on the Vancouver Canucks

Hopefully Travis Green has found some hours to sleep since the game one beat down his team endured at the hands of the Vegas Golden Knights.

This isn’t to insinuate that he is being kept awake from nightmares of relentless Golden Knight rush attacks. Rather, it speaks to the tall order of rearranging his chess pieces to match up against his juggernaut opponents and the very short time frame he has to work with.

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This Vegas squad is an entirely new beast that Green’s young core has yet to experience. If the Minnesota Wild were an elective and the St. Louis Blues a core subject, then consider the Vegas Golden Knights a master’s degree in the modern-day NHL playoffs. They are fast, mean, 21-skaters deep, motivated, and leverage a tactical system that greatly enhances their roster’s strengths. This is the challenge Travis Green and his Vancouver Canucks face. How can they keep up with Vegas’ speed that attacks line after line after line?

How to manufacture offence in transition

Much has been written and researched on the value of controlled zone entries and in game one, Vegas epitomized the importance of carrying the puck on their stick into the offensive zone. All four of the Golden Knights goals at even strength were the result of a successful controlled zone entry. To further emphasize this point, there was a major discrepancy between the two teams and their abilities to transport the puck over the blueline with control. Vegas was successful 40.45% of the time and Vancouver a meagre 27.72%. In the NHL this season, the average team gained the line with control 41.08% of the time, an alarming difference over Vancouver’s performance.

Filtering the two teams’ performance down to strictly zone entries from forwards, the Golden Knights carried in 47.83% of the time with control in comparison to Vancouver’s forwards with 32.05%. What this means is that on nearly half of all of Vegas’ entries by forwards, their most skilled offensive players started with the puck on their sticks making it easier to create offence rather than having to fight to regain control of the puck and establish offensive zone time. This only happened a third of the time for Vancouver’s forwards.

Team Controlled Entry % Forward Controlled Entry % Rush Shot Attempts
VGK 40.45% 47.83% 23
VAN 27.72% 32.05% 19

5-on-5 micro-stats tracked by Brett Lee

So how was Vegas able to gain the offensive zone with relative ease and Vancouver falter? The defensive zone is usually a good place to start.

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The Vegas Breakout

Vancouver actually did a quality job limiting the success rate of Vegas’ controlled exits, keeping them close to league average. This season, the average NHL team exited their zone with control of the puck 37.0% of the time according to stats tracked by Corey Sznajder. In game one, Vegas posted a controlled exit percentage of 38.73. However, what Vegas may have lacked in quantity of controlled exits, they more than made up for it in quality.

The strength in Vegas’ breakout is in its ability to create space in the neutral zone so that their speed can attack Vancouver’s blueline. The Golden Knights employ an overload breakout strategy with the goal of outnumbering the strong side of the ice, winning battles along the boards, and having a skater cut up the zone through the dot line with speed. Below is an example of this breakout.

With the puck behind the Vegas net, as soon as possession is won back VGK89 immediately shifts over from the slot to the strong side to support the impending breakout. This is what makes this setup an overload as there are four Vegas skaters all on the strong side of the ice which usually results in a numbers advantage. VGK89 continues to come across and receives the breakout pass on what is known as the dot line. This is the imaginary line that goes north-south and passes through the four faceoff ‘dots’.

Jack Han wrote about this Vegas identity in his newsletter to greater detail, outlining why Vegas can consistently be a strong team in transition, regardless of who is in the lineup.

Another clinical example of Vegas’ strong dot line support and speed can be seen in the clip below. With the puck chipped in and VAN64 pressuring, VGK22 slides the puck behind the net for his partner. VAN18 is looking to pressure VGK2 but isn’t there in time and VGK2 chips the puck up the boards. VGK21 is exactly where he is supposed to be on the half-wall and quickly bumps the puck to the dot lane for VGK10 and just like that, the Golden Knights have exited the zone in four touches and are attacking Vancouver’s blue line with speed.

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Another advantage of this overload breakout is the room on the weak side of the ice that it can create. Because Vegas has four players on one side of the ice in order to support the breakout and win battles along the boards to advance the puck, defending teams allocate their own resources to reinforce the strong side. This leaves ample room for Vegas’ weakside defenceman to jump up and receive a cross-ice pass. Add in the fact that Vegas has an extremely mobile top-four and this is an efficient recipe for success.

In the next breakout, VGK uses their numbers advantage and forward depth to win a board battle low in their zone. With Vancouver committing all three of their forwards towards the boards, this leaves VGK88 all alone on the weak side to jump up and lead the rush. VGK67 calmly handles the puck with VAN9 pressuring and he quickly moves the puck to the open side, springing VGK88 for an easy exit.

Neutral Zone Defence

The next facet of discussion is two-pronged. Vegas and their efforts to shut down plays in the neutral zone account in part for the discrepancy in controlled zone entries between the two teams. This ability is what has stymied Vancouver’s ability to create meaningful zone entries while also launching counterattacks using Vegas’ speed. Below, Alec Martinez perfectly seals of Tyler Motte on an entry attempt, and Vegas quickly counters going the other way. Martinez had a monster game defending his blueline denying three entry and forcing two dump-ins.

To compound the concerning territorial battle in the neutral zone, Vancouver was extremely irresponsible with the puck in between the blue lines. Below are three examples of Vancouver players either turning the puck over in the neutral zone with a careless pass, not making sure that the puck is dumped down deep enough to force Vegas back, and lastly losing a 50/50 battle in the neutral zone resulting in Vegas’ fifth goal.

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Back checking will be paramount, attention to detail and winning 50/50 battles along the boards and in the neutral zone are the keys to evening up the transition battle for this series. We’ll check back to see if any adjustments are made by coach Green.