Knights have work to do after falling in Game 1

The Winnipeg Jets outplayed and outworked Vegas and were rewarded with a 5-1 win and a 1-0 series lead in their opening round Stanley Cup Playoffs matchup.

LAS VEGAS — Repeat after me: “It’s only one game.” “It’s only one game.”

They don’t shake hands after Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But if Tuesday’s performance by the Vegas Golden Knights doesn’t serve as a wakeup call, those handshakes may be forthcoming far quicker than any of us imagined with Bruce Cassidy’s guys being on the wrong side of the line.

Credit the Winnipeg Jets for not blinking in the face of an amped-up crowd of 18,006 at T-Mobile Arena, not getting frustrated when not one, not two but three first-period pucks were in the Vegas crease only to manage to stay out of the net, and for playing with veteran poise and have their best players show up in leading the way.

Vegas flu? I don’t think so. Guess there’s a vaccine for that too these days.

Winnipeg’s 5-1 victory in Game 1 sent a few messages. One, the Jets aren’t easily intimidated. Not when they’ve got Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Adam Lowry on the ice. Two, the Jets have arguably been in playoff mode for a few weeks now, having to battle and scrape just to get into the 16-team chase for the Stanley Cup. They seemed very comfortable being patient, playing chip-and-chase hockey and waiting for the Knights to make a mistake. Even the absence of Nikolaj Ehlers, one of the Jets’ better offensive players, didn’t slow them down. 

Three, the Knights may be close to full strength with the return of their captain Mark Stone and having Jack Eichel tasting the postseason for the first time in his eight-year NHL career. But the Jets saw to it that neither was a factor. Unlike the Knights, the Jets weren’t going to let the opposition’s best players dominate and beat them. 

Stone played just under 21 1/2 minutes, was a minus-3 and was held without a shot on goal. Eichel’s first playoff game saw him take two shots in 20:29 TOI, was also minus-3 and was just 3 of 9 on faceoffs.

“He looked rusty. We expected that,” Cassidy said of Stone, who last skated in a game on Jan. 12 before undergoing a second back surgery on Jan. 31. “It’s going to take some time. Hopefully, he gets better with each game.”

Laurent Brossoit, who earned the start in goal for the Knights, the first playoff start of his career, looked very beatable. He claims he had a book on his former teammates but apparently they had a book on him and how to put pucks by him. 

So what do you do if you’re Cassidy? Do you shuffle the deck and change your lines for Game 2? Do you change goaltenders? Do you maintain the status quo and hope it comes together? Because if it doesn’t change and you’re looking at an 0-2 deficit going back to the ‘Peg on Saturday, that’s a hole you may not be able to extricate yourself from.   

“We made some mistakes which they buried,” Cassidy said. “They don’t give you a lot offensively. That’s who they are.”

He hit the blender button late in the second period and early in the third, putting the Misfit Line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault back together, moved Phil Kessel off the second line and had him with Michael Amadio and Brett Howden and had Stone and Eichel together skating with Chandler Stephenson, all in the hopes of generating some offense.

Karlsson’s second-period goal cut it to 2-1 but when Blake Wheeler scored early in the third to restore Winnipeg’s two-goal advantage, it sucked the energy out of the building.  

It’s not like the Knights weren’t ready to play. They had their moments. But credit Winnipeg for doing what it needed to do. The Jets were able to fend off Vegas’ offense for the most part, limiting the Knights to just 17 shots. And even when they had misfortune befall them, as was the case when Morgan Barron took a skate to the face in the first period, received 75 stitches and returned to the game, they were bound and determined to prevail.

It was a weird Tuesday. All four home teams (New Jersey, Toronto, Colorado and Vegas) lost, and by an overall margin of 20-6. So it wasn’t only the Knights who stumbled and lost home ice. That’s the NHL for you. Always expect the unexpected in the postseason.

“It’s playoff hockey,” Cassidy said. “You need an intensity level that’s higher than what we showed. They played better and they deserved to win.”

Which is why no one should be hitting the panic button. As  Devils captain Nico Hischier said after Jersey’s 5-1 loss to the Rangers, “Obviously not the way we wanted to start. But it’s one game. We’ve got a game on Thursday to tie this up. We’ve got to focus on that right now.”

Words to live by if you’re a Golden Knights fan.

For more on Tuesday’s game, read W.G. Ramirez’s game story here

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