Where the last two Stanley Cup champs stand after Vegas’ early statement win over Colorado

LAS VEGAS — The NHL regular season is long, and it’s a stretch to call any victory in early November a statement win, but the Vegas Golden Knights’ beatdown of the Colorado Avalanche Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena is as close as it comes.

It was a matchup between the last two Stanley Cup champions, and two of the top teams in the Western Conference through one month of hockey. Vegas improved its record to 11-0-1 with its most impressive performance yet, throttling the Colorado 7-0.

The Golden Knights’ stars performed as such, with two goals apiece from Mark Stone, Jack Eichel and William Karlsson. Adin Hill stopped all 41 shots he faced for his first regular-season shutout as a Golden Knight. It was a complete performance from top to bottom, but coach Bruce Cassidy felt the game was more competitive than the final score suggests.

“I think we were the better team, but I don’t think it was a 7-0 game,” he said. “We’re going to take the win and enjoy it. … Obviously, there are a lot of positives. It’s a good win but we’re not going to over-value this. We got the two points, and let’s start thinking about our next opponent.”

It was an early measuring stick game for both sides. The Avalanche are 7-3-0 on the year but have been shut out in three straight road games, and were outscored 15-0 in those contests. Everything was clicking for the Golden Knights, while the Avalanche struggled to find a rhythm. Saturday night’s blowout isn’t a true measure of these two contenders, but it showed a soft opening schedule isn’t the only reason for Vegas’ hot start.

The road through the Western Conference playoffs will likely go through Vegas, Colorado or both, so let’s further examine how these teams match up after their first meeting.

Who’s one player from the team you don’t normally cover who jumped out?

Peter Baugh, Avalanche writer: I realize this is the easy answer, but Eichel looks excellent. He had a monster playoff run, and his strong play has continued into the 2023-24 season. He scored with two lasers — his first goal was a beauty — and his two-way play jumped out, too. Eichel plays on the Golden Knights penalty kill and created a couple of short-handed chances on Saturday.

In terms of top-end talent, the Avalanche normally have an edge on any opponent, but Eichel played much better Saturday than Nathan MacKinnon, his top-line center counterpart. The Colorado star has not been at his best in the past three road games. He has a minus-6 rating in that stretch and has made multiple costly turnovers.

MacKinnon took accountability postgame speaking to Jesse Montano of Guerrilla Sports, saying the Avalanche need to be better defensively and that the wheels fell off after a decent start against Vegas.

“Just a terrible feeling,” he said, “and it starts with the best players to be better leaders on the ice.

Jesse Granger, Golden Knights writer: In a game where not many Avs were at their best, Logan O’Connor stood out to me. The third line of O’Connor, Ross Colton and Miles Wood was the most effective unit for Colorado, spending a lot of time in the Vegas zone. The three move the puck well, are strong on the boards and generated some of the Avalanche’s best looks.

O’Connor led Colorado with nine shot attempts and six scoring chances at even strength, and the Avalanche held a commanding 15-1 edge in scoring chances in his 13:16 of five-on-five ice time. It wasn’t as if he received easy matchups either. He played more shifts against Stone and Chandler Stephenson than any other forwards.

If Colorado’s depth forwards can play like that, and the top stars can find a way to get their game going, it would make for an incredibly tough matchup.

What did Colorado show about itself on Saturday?

Baugh: Colorado still has a lot to clean up. The Avalanche might be able to get away with imperfect play against lesser opponents, but Vegas is opportunistic and punishes mistakes. Just look at the Golden Knights’ goals on Saturday. Their first, a Stone short-handed goal, came shortly after a MacKinnon giveaway. A Valeri Nichushkin turnover led to William Carrier’s goal in the second period, and Stone took a puck away from the Colorado power play in the third, then potted it for his second short-handed goal of the game.

Avalanche coach Jared Bednar lamented the turnovers, as well as the lack of commitment to checking and defense, in his postgame comments to reporters in Las Vegas.

“The difference in the two hockey teams right now, is, for me, Vegas is going to force you to beat them,” Bednar said. “You’re going to have to earn everything you get against them, and we’re the opposite right now.”

The Avalanche led the game in shots but did not do enough to make life difficult on goalie Hill. The Golden Knights goalie played well, but Colorado skaters couldn’t break through the Vegas defense to consistently challenge him, especially in the second half of the game. MacKinnon said he feels the team is getting decent looks, but “the finishing touches aren’t there. The chemistry feels off.”

What’s one area where Vegas has an edge over Colorado?

Granger: Vegas holds the same edge over Colorado that it did over each of its opponents during last season’s Cup run: depth.

On Saturday the Golden Knights’ stars outplayed the Avalanche’s, but that’s not what they’ll hang their hat on moving forward. Vegas leans on its talent spread throughout all four lines and three defensive pairs, especially defensively.

Jack Eichel shoots the puck against the Avalanche. Eichel scored twice on Saturday. (Zak Krill / NHLI via Getty Images)

“This is what makes our team good,” Eichel said after the game. “When everyone contributes like tonight you have a big win, but in some of these tighter games we’ve been playing, different people are stepping up and making a difference for us. We rely on our four lines. We take a lot of pride in having a deep group, and I think you see that shine in games like tonight where there are a lot of contributions up and down the lineup.”

Eichel scored two impressive goals on Saturday, but he hadn’t scored in the previous six games. Stone was also off to a slow start, with only two goals through the first 11 games prior to his two-goal night versus Colorado. Despite those slow starts the Golden Knights have yet to lose in regulation thanks to depth production. Vegas has goals from 18 different players and points from 23, both leading the NHL.

That depth allows the Golden Knights to win even on nights when their stars struggle, which could be what separates them.

What’s something to watch with Colorado coming out of this game?

Baugh: Colorado’s offseason additions are taking time to get acclimated to a new team and system. That’s expected to some extent, but the team still needs more from them. Ryan Johansen, acquired to be Colorado’s No. 2 center, has zero even strength points. Tomas Tatar had three shots against Vegas, but he had only one in his first eight games. Jonathan Drouin has been snakebit and doesn’t have a point since the first game of the season. Colton and Wood look solid on a line with O’Connor, but the two newcomers have combined for only one non-empty-net goal.

All of the Avalanche’s offseason additions have shown the ability to be impact players in recent years, so it’s not time to hammer the panic button quite yet. But their less-than-seamless transition was particularly apparent when juxtaposed with a Vegas team full of continuity.

What’s something to watch with Vegas coming out of this game?

Granger: The Golden Knights have been an elite team at even strength for a long time, with special teams being one of the few weaknesses. That wasn’t the case on Saturday, against a generally-exceptional Colorado penalty kill and power play. Vegas dominated the special teams battle with one goal on the power play and two short-handed.

The Golden Knights power play ranks eighth in the NHL at 25 percent, and the penalty kill is fifth at 89.2 percent. They won the Cup last season despite their mediocre special teams. If they can maintain that strong level, they’re going to be incredibly tough to beat.

(Top photo of Mark Stone of the Golden Knights celebrating a third-period goal: Jeff Bottari / NHLI via Getty Images)

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