How the heck did the Vegas Golden Knights — a team that was supposed to make us cringe harder (and be less entertaining) than that awkward airport photo of Connor McDavid sandwiched between two fans — make the Stanley Cup Final?
How the heck did this happen? It’s the question everyone has been asking.
This fairytale-esque run has been shocking, incredible, and flat-out ridiculous. But it has been no fluke. This team chewed up and spat out the Los Angeles Kings in four games straight, overpowered the San Jose Sharks in six, and whited out the Winnipeg Jets in five.
So how did this happen? While a scorching goaltender has certainly helped, three critical practices lie at the heart of the Vegas Golden Knights’ success: forechecking with support, preventing clean breakouts and stifling speed and control through the neutral zone. Let’s break each one down.
Forecheck: The Triangle Theory
We know that Vegas’ forecheck is its bread and golden butter. It epitomizes speed, intensity and relentlessness, seemingly attacking in waves with every forward on the roster committed to playing this brand of hockey. The pressure that results creates fits for opposing teams and leads to turnovers galore, but its effectiveness is attributable to more than simply a killer work ethic.
The key to the Vegas Golden Knights’ forecheck is the close support all three forwards provide one another via a triangle formation.
When the puck is along the boards, the first Vegas forward (F1), meaning the forward closest to the puck, chases. The second forward (F2) provides F1 with support along the boards. The third forward (F3) stays high but relatively close, reading and reacting to the play to offer support to F1 and F2. Observe the example below from Round 2 against the San Jose Sharks (F1 is No. 92, F2 is No. 28, F3 is No. 41):
F1 and F2 draw both San Jose defenders, as well as the San Jose center (No. 8), to the boards. F3, meanwhile, finds a quiet area around the hash marks where he hovers (but never stands still), ready to react accordingly: he’s in strong position to take away the Sharks’ passing lanes up the strong side (to No. 27) or up the middle (to No. 9), or to act as a short pass option for his linemates. When F3 recognizes his linemate has gained possession, he quickly shuffles to his right to establish a clear passing lane while opening up to receive the puck. The result is a quality scoring chance.
This scoring chance only happens for two reasons ascribed to this triangle formation. First, the dual pressure from F1 and F2 on the forecheck — characterized by gaining inside body position and freeing sticks to make plays — sucks numerous opposing players to the boards which creates lapses in defensive zone coverage. Here, three Sharks are drawn to F1 and F2, causing confusion among the two Sharks wingers who fail to adjust their coverage accordingly which results in a wide open F3. Second, since all three forwards provide one another with close support proximity-wise, passes need only travel a short distance and are therefore unlikely to be tipped or intercepted. Here, the pass from F1 to F3 is tape-to-tape because of the close support F3 provides.
The following is another example from Round 2 of this exact same pattern unfolding based on these same principles:
F1 (No. 71) chases the puck hard, F2 (No. 81) supports him along the boards, and F3 (No. 19) reads and reacts to the play, moving into the slot for an uninterrupted pass as the Sharks wingers neglect to modify their coverage with their center stuck behind the goal line.
Do you notice how quickly F2 moves the puck to F3? And how he does so blindly, yet still places the biscuit right on his tape? The beauty of this triangle structure is that all three Vegas forwards know exactly where one another are (or at least should be) in the offensive zone; the perfect recipe for quick passing, maintaining puck control, and producing dangerous scoring opportunities.
Watch how fast the Golden Knights forwards move the puck around throughout this sequence — which eventually ends in a goal — from Round 1 against the Los Angeles Kings:
This sequence is awe-inspiring for several reasons. First of all, the tight triangular support along the half-wall at the beginning allows Vegas to gain possession (F1 is No. 21, F2 is No. 57, F3 is No. 40). This compact triangular support causes teams to become puck-focused and collapse to a single area of their zone, leaving other areas exposed. In this instance, all five Kings players collapse to one quadrant of their zone. When the puck is passed back to the Vegas defenseman, he has the entire right side of the ice to himself. Yes, it is pretty funny.
After the defenseman’s shot rings off the bar, Vegas’ triangle formation rotates but is maintained: F1 curls into the slot and becomes F3, F2 retrieves the puck along the half-wall and becomes F1, and F3 offers F1 support by the boards and becomes F2. F2 and F3 are wide open because they moved their feet immediately after the puck initially left the half-wall. This constant movement and anticipation is crucial to Vegas’ offensive success as it forces teams to scramble and leads to breakdowns in defensive zone coverage.
When the Golden Knights are on the forecheck, it often feels as though they’re playing with an extra man. Why? This continuous movement and smart positional support as a three-man unit often allows Vegas’ forwards to create mini 2-on-1’s in the offensive zone. When No. 57 passes the puck to No. 21 in the slot, there’s only one opposing player between them. When No. 40 corrals the rebound that pops out after the ensuing blocked shot, there’s only one opposing player between he and No. 21 (who has the presence of mind to keep his feet moving to establish an angle for the pass). Any time a team can create a 2-on-1, especially in the offensive zone, it holds the advantage.
Here’s another example of the triangle leading to a Golden Knights goal, this time in Round 3 against the Winnipeg Jets:
As is the case on this play, the triangle formation typically causes opposing forwards to collapse down in their own end, leaving Vegas’ defensemen with all kinds of time and space to make a play or skate in for a shot.
Fueled by close support, constant structured movement, and quick thinking, the Vegas Golden Knights’ triangle forecheck is simple brilliance that wreaks havoc on the opposition. When the forecheck is rolling, the Golden Knights are rolling.
Preventing clean breakouts
Vegas frequently generates sustained zone time by making it difficult for opposing teams to exit their zone cleanly. Vegas’ defensemen pinch to hold the zone and are usually successful, but can only afford to do so because the forwards do an excellent job of anticipating the play and providing support; the defensemen help the forwards, and the forwards help the defensemen.
On this play, Shea Theodore (No. 27) maintains great gap control when pinching. He skates in to eliminate the Los Angeles player’s time and space, and smartly angles both his body and stick to cut off the middle of the ice. Theodore pinches here because he has two forwards, No. 18 and No. 56 in particular, skating back with speed. This speed is generated by the aforementioned constant movement in the offensive zone.
Here’s another example that leads to the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Washington Capitals:
Theodore again stands up at the line in this sequence, but if it isn’t for Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (No. 41) coming back to pressure the Washington player along the boards and subsequently holding the puck in to Theodore, this goal doesn’t happen. Theodore recognizes he can pinch without much danger because of the support from Bellemare and the additional support from Ryan Reaves (No. 75) who’s skating back.
It’s challenging for teams to establish a rhythm and generate momentum in a game when the breakout is continuously interrupted. Plus, the more offensive zone time the Golden Knights manufacture, the more problematic the forecheck becomes for the opposition and the greater the chances of a victory.
Stifling speed and control through the neutral zone
It’s tough for a team to generate speed through the neutral zone when it can’t exit its own zone cleanly. When a clean breakout does occur, however, Vegas’ forwards commonly provide back pressure that restricts speed and interferes with puck control. This pressure ultimately limits chances off the rush by forcing a dump-in or a turnover.
The back pressure via stick and body from both No. 56 along the boards and No. 89 at center disrupts Winnipeg’s north-south speed and ability to generate off the rush — one of the Jets’ major sources of offense. This pressure forces Winnipeg to dump the puck in and work to retrieve it, eliminating the luxury of carrying it into the zone with control.
Here’s another example against the Jets; however, the back pressure in this one results in a Winnipeg turnover and a Vegas goal:
The relentless back pressure from Reilly Smith (No. 19) allows Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt (No. 88) to stand up in the neutral zone and maintain a close gap with his stick, rather than back off. These simultaneous pressures stemming from active sticks produce a turnover which leads to a quick counter and a Vegas celebration.
In both of these sequences, the back pressure from the forwards — especially the high forward in that triangle formation — arrives quickly because of strong anticipation and constant movement.
These three elements, collectively, make this superstar-less team elite. They shrink the ice on the opposition and allow Vegas to spend chunks of time playing 200 feet from its own end. The Vegas Golden Knights play a tenacious game that oozes speed, smarts, and structure.
It’s hard not to appreciate Vegas hockey and it’s hard not to wonder if this team has enough fuel left in the tank to complete the improbable.