Obviously last night’s series finale between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights didn’t go as expected. First of all, the Sharks were able to recover from a 3-1 series deficit, force a Game 7, and then win it. Second, the game went into overtime, just as Game 6 did. Third, the biggest shock of Game 7, is the way it all played out. In the blink of an eye, the Golden Knights went from sitting in the driver’s seat, with a 3-0 lead mid-way through the third period, to eliminated from the playoffs. It was an interesting game, that has left a sour taste in the mouths of VGK fans far and wide. Time to dive into that, here’s our last “Game Changers” of the season…..
#1: One Bad Penalty and Penalty Kill
“Why don’t you have a video replay? Like, just help them (officials)! It’s a fast game for everybody out there. It’s a fast game, it’s embarrassing.”
A normally friendly, jovial Jonathan Marchessault was not happy, rightfully so, following the Golden Knights’ series loss to the rival Sharks. While he was agitated, he did bring up some valid points regarding the call. Before we get into that, here are some of the most notable Twitter reactions on the cross-check heard round the world.
Never want to see someone get hurt, but that was not even a minor penalty on Cody Eakin, let alone a 5 minute major.
Now that we have seen the outrage, the support, and the reasonable side of the call, here’s what went down, in the event that you missed it. Cody Eakin and Joe Pavelski lined up for a faceoff in the Golden Knights’ zone, to the left of Marc-Andre Fleury. Lined up to Eakin’s right, was second-line center Paul Stastny. Stastny was paired with Eakin for the d-zone draw as insurance, if Eakin were tossed from the faceoff. Turns out, that was foreshadowing…
Eakin cleanly lost the draw to the Sharks’ captain. As Pavelski sent the puck toward his defensemen, Eakin cross-checked his counterpart, a tad more aggressively than you’d normally see off a faceoff. Pavelski began to stumble, spun toward his left/Eakin’s right, toward Stastny who was working to pursue the puck at the blue line. The contact with Stastny was mostly harmless in regard to Stastny’s role in it. Stastny got his hands up to fend off the falling Pavelski, sending him to the ground in a different direction. Here is where it got dicey.
Following the Eakin cross-check and stumbling into Stastny, Pavelski seemed to hit his head extremely hard on the ice. There was immediately apparent blood near his head. He laid motionless for approximately 10 seconds before a whistle came to stop play, despite both teams possessing the puck prior. It was not clear if there was a penalty signaled, as the play came fast, right off the faceoff. After a discussion between all four officials (two referees and two linesmen), they assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking and a game misconduct to Eakin.
VGK Lost Eakin for the Game (USA Today Sports)
In hindsight, after replay confirmation, Eakin’s stick did not contact the face or neck of the Sharks’ captain. In real time, the play looked very dirty and even for a “normal” cross-check following a faceoff, Eakin’s shot was a bit forceful. In retrospect, the play in question should have been a two-minute minor on Eakin and worst case, another two on Stastny for interference, for shoving Pavelski down, but that second minor is a stretch. Point being, while upon review the wrong call was made, the referees did not “blow the call”. They called what they saw and/or thought happened, at the time. Following the game, a dejected Jonathan Marchessault shone some light on the issue at hand saying, “Why don’t you have a hockey replay or something, it changed the whole outcome of the game? Like, seriously, what is that?”
Despite being feeling cheated, angry, and dejected, Marchessault made a great point. Why can’t hockey institute more of a review, to avoid a game-changing wrong call? Eakin lost his chance to help his team, for a play that was unworthy of a game misconduct. At the same time, the Golden Knights went from having full control of the game, to needing a five-minute major penalty kill, against a deadly Sharks power play. Up 3-0 with 10:47 left to play, the tables were turned on them and they were behind the eight ball. Instituting a simple review process, similar to the way the NBA handles flagrant fouls, would be hugely beneficial to the NHL and its officials.
As time would tell, the seemingly impossible deficit was cleared by the Sharks and then some. Somehow, the previously goal-less Sharks scored four power play goals, stealing the lead away from the Golden Knights. Suddenly, they were poised to win a game they seemed to have no chance in. Due to the call being a major penalty, the Knights had to serve the entire five-minutes, instead of returning to full strength following Logan Couture’s goal, :07 into the PP. A short :49 later, Tomas Hertl made the game 3-2 on a beautiful redirection from the high slot. Couture tied the game up 2:42 later and then Kevin Lebanc did the unthinkable, scoring the go-ahead goal with :52 left on the Eakin penalty.
San Jose completed an epic comeback (USA Today Sports)
Should they have been on a five-minute power play? No. Would the Golden Knights have been better on the PK with Eakin on the ice, already down Pierre-Edouard Bellemare? Yes. At the same time, the Golden Knights are professionals, have an abundance of competent penalty-killing forwards and cannot allow four goals in less than five minutes. Taking their faults on the PK into account, calling the penalty to Eakin a “Game Changer” is the biggest understatement of my writing career.
#2: Jonathan Marchessault
Not only did Marchessault have some great insight in the locker room following the game, he also had the biggest impact of any Golden Knights player. In an effort to erase the Sharks’ 4-3 lead, the Golden Knights pulled Fleury for an extra attacker. With the net empty, Head Coach Gerard Gallant rolled the dice and iced six forwards, to push for a goal and tie the game. This was a do or die mentality, necessary in a Game 7.
Marchessault's fourth goal in four games (USA Today Sports)
His gamble paid off with :47 left in regulation time as Marchessault buried Reilly Smith’s pass from behind the goal, from the low slot. He beat Martin Jones, short-side, under his arm, with the one-timer. Making the play possible was the vertical leap of William Karlsson, who kept Joe Thornton’s airmailed clearing attempt in the zone, leading to the sequence that tied the game.
#3: Emotions in Check
This series has been an intense, rivalry-fueled seven games, due to the reworked NHL playoff format. Starting last season, the second and third seeds in each division, face off in the opening round of the post-season. Rivalries such as Sharks-Golden Knights, Maple Leafs-Bruins, Penguins-Isles, and Jets-Blues were downright amazing to watch. Although fans may get tired of watching the same teams, the rivalry set-up, helped make the first round so much fun and unpredictable.
In the first four games of the Golden Knights’ series, the physical play was high and the rough stuff was put at a premium. As the Sharks started to crumble following their Game 1 win, the Golden Knights looked to exploit their emotions, goading their players into bad penalties and fights.
All of that changed with the Sharks facing elimination in Game 5. No longer were the Sharks looking to “mix it up” and play chippy. They wisely ended up withdrawing from that side of the game. On multiple occasions, Evander Kane even got hit late and simply put his head down, electing to skate away. For a player of Kane’s temper to do that, there must have been a strong message from Coach DeBoer. Throughout Game 7, the Sharks stuck to their game, determined to focus on their strong offensive zone presence, rather than fighting back-and-forth with the Golden Knights. Over the course of the game, they were only assessed two penalties, a trip and a hold, and went on to win the series. Their ability to keep their emotions in check kept them alive and successful.
This is the first real dose of heartbreak for the Golden Knights and their fan base. Last season’s Stanley Cup final loss does not come close to a round one exit, especially in this fashion. There will be other teams and their fans rejoicing in the misfortune of the Golden Knights. This is nothing more than an opportunity for the great fans in Vegas to stand up, stay behind their team, and show the world that they are “real” hockey fans. Part of what bonds hockey communities is the undying heartbreak, despair, and disappointment. Now that the Golden Knights have some of their own, they’re officially in the club. Now repeat after me and all other hockey fans across the league, “we’ll get em next season”.
Be sure to follow me on Twitter for Golden Knights news, analysis, and updates. Join the discussion on Game Knights as I will be very active throughout Game 5. Follow @VGK_Buzz