How the Golden Knights have gained the edge in a crucial area vs. the Stars

LAS VEGAS — The Stanley Cup playoffs feature a violent brand of hockey, especially in front of each net.

It’s where the bravest players dare to establish position. Where the biggest and strongest battle. Where games are often won and lost.

But there’s more to the net-front battle than pure brute strength. There’s nuance to the fight, with several techniques that defensemen employ, and quick decision-making can be even more important than the physical ability to move a man.

The Golden Knights’ defensive core is among the best at the mental side of this game within the game. They are full of playoff experience, and through two games in their first-round series against Dallas, heading into Game 3 on Saturday, it has paid major dividends.

Vegas’ defensive core has all the physical tools. With an average weight of 214.6 pounds, they have the heaviest blue line of any playoff team. Every defenseman is taller than 6-foot-1, and four of them are 6-3 or taller. Only one Golden Knights defenseman is under 200 pounds (Shea Theodore, at 197 pounds).

They’ve also been here and done this many times. They have played in 582 combined playoff games between the seven defensemen who have hit the ice this postseason, and that experience is evident in their game.

Coach Bruce Cassidy runs a layered zone system that keeps the defensemen close to the net, rather than chasing their man around the ice. It gives them ownership of that area, and now, two full years into running that system, the Vegas defensemen have mastered it.

When guarding the net-front, there are two different ways of defending. You can box an opposing player out, tying up the forward’s stick and moving him out of the goaltender’s sight line to allow him to make the save. You can also front the opposing player, getting in front of that forward with the intention of blocking the shot yourself before it ever gets to the goalie.

Vegas is exceptional at the latter. The team finished third in the NHL with 1,506 blocks this season, and has finished inside the top three for four straight seasons. Even before Cassidy arrived, the Golden Knights defensemen had a knack for blocking shots. The system they now run keeps them in that area more often, and it’s led to even more blocks.

Golden Knights blocking by season

Season Blocks NHL rank













Since 2020, Vegas defenseman Brayden McNabb leads the NHL with 660 blocks. Teammate Alec Martinez is in second place with 645 and Alex Pietrangelo is ninth with 581.

“He’s a meat-and-potatoes guy,” Cassidy said of McNabb. “Being greasy and hard to play against inside. That’s his game. If they want to play the ‘get it to the front of the net’ (style), which they do very well with their tips, rebounds, etc., then he’s a guy that’s up for the challenge. He’s good close to the net. It’s what he does well, and it’s what we need him to keep doing.”

Knowing when to block the shot and when to clear a lane for the goalie to see isn’t always easy. The action is quick on the ice, and making the right decision in a split-second can be the difference between an easy save for the goalie, and a goal on a shot that the netminder never even saw.

“It’s very important, and it’s tough,” McNabb said. “The first thing is distinguishing your guy. Sometimes there are switches, but if you can distinguish your guy early and make sure you’re under his stick, that’s step one.

“The most important thing is getting under sticks, especially with this (Dallas) team, because they’re great at it. So that’s priority number one.”

The Stars are one of the most difficult teams in the league to defend in this area. They generate a ton of chances from in front of the net, scoring the third-most goals this season from inside of 29 feet. Dallas forwards Joe Pavelski, Wyatt Johnston and Roope Hintz are all elite from generating shots and goals from inside. They all rank inside the top seven percent of NHL players in shots and goals from that area.

Player HD shots (percentile) HD goals (NHL percentile)

83 (95%)

18 (94%)

87 (96%)

17 (93%)

79 (94%)

19 (95%)

Pavelski, in particular, is legendary at deflecting pucks on net from the slot. Since the 2009-10 season, he leads all NHL players with 159 shots on goal via deflection, with second-place Mark Scheifele having only 92. He also leads all players with 32 goals of that variety, 10 goals ahead of second place.

Benn has also been very good at it. He ranks fifth in the league with 88 deflections on goal over that span.

Through the first two games of this series, the Golden Knights have limited Dallas to only one deflected shot on net. They’ve held the Stars to only 12 shots from inside 29 feet (second-lowest in the playoffs) and only one goal from that range (last in the playoffs).

They’ve done it with intelligent defending, knowing when to tie up a stick to let goaltender Logan Thompson see the shot, and when to lay in front of the shot themselves.

“If you can be under his stick and make the block, that’s a perfect world,” McNabb said. “They’re a great team, and we’ve handled it well. We know what they like to do and we’ve been solid defensively.”

As McNabb explained, Vegas’ defensemen are first finding their man, which is always changing thanks to the zone concept. Once that’s established, they look to gain position and get their stick underneath the forward, so they can lift it in the event a puck comes their direction. When the puck goes out to the point for a shot, they do their best to clear an alley for Thompson to see the release.

As the puck gets closer to the net, that’s where responsibilities change. On shots that come from inside 20 feet, the goalie has very little time to react. The human nervous system can only process information so quickly, so on shots from really close, the goalie isn’t reacting to anything, he’s just getting into the best position possible. On those types of shots, rather than clearing a lane for the goalie to see, defenders are simply getting in front of shots to block them themselves.

“There’s desperation, sometimes, where they have a grade-A look because something broke down, and you have to lay out,” McNabb said. “It’s just playing hockey.”

Meanwhile, Vegas has beaten Dallas’ defense to the inside several times already. Mark Stone scored a deflection goal in Game 1. Tomas Hertl deflected a shot on net then followed up his rebound for a goal from the doorstep later in that game. Both of Jonathan Marchessault’s goals were one-timers from right in front, and even Noah Hanifin’s goal in Game 2 was the result of him winning a race to a loose puck in front of the net.

The Stars have spent more time in the offensive zone in this series. They’ve had more shot attempts in both games thus far, holding a 112-88 edge in shot attempts overall. Vegas blocked 20 of those attempts in Game 1, and 15 more in Game 2.

“It just shows we know how to win,” Thompson said. “We’ve done it all year. We did it last year. That’s just the experience of our group coming through, just shutting them down, keeping them to the outside and making my life a lot easier.”

Vegas’ mix of size, strength and hockey sense on the back end has made it one of the most difficult teams to score on, and through two games, it’s been the difference in the first-round playoff series.

(Photo of Vegas’ Noah Hanifin and Dallas’ Mason Marchment: Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

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