The Golden Knights played Game 2 of their NHL semifinal series against Montreal on Wednesday with a clear hole up the middle.
Top-line center Chandler Stephenson sat out with an upper-body injury and forced the team to adjust its plans for one of the few times this season.
Center Nicolas Roy initially took over Stephenson’s rule, but he was swapped out for center Keegan Kolesar in the second period. Kolesar got his third assist of the playoffs after being elevated in the lineup in the Knights’ 3-2 loss to the Canadiens at T-Mobile Arena.
“A big loss,” captain Mark Stone said. (Stephenson’s) been one of our top centermen all year. You don’t replace him, but that being said, I thought (Kolesar) stepped up real well. Played a great game for us. Was poised. Skated the middle of the ice really well for Max and I. When you lose guys, somebody has to step up, and I think (Kolesar’s) going to do a good job going forward in this series.”
Stephenson, who is day to day, according to coach Pete DeBoer, has been impressive in his first full season with the Knights.
He had a career-high 14 goals, 21 assists and 35 points despite the shortened schedule and was excellent between his usual two wingers. The Knights outscored opponents 38-17 at five-on-five with Stephenson, Stone and left wing Max Pacioretty on the ice.
That carried into the postseason, as Stephenson has six assists in 14 games. The Knights have outscored teams 6-2 with their top group on the ice at five-on-five.
Stephenson also has been reliable. He missed five games in the regular season — three for an elbowing suspension — and none in the playoffs before Wednesday. William Karlsson has yet to miss a game, so the Knights have rarely had to turn to a Plan B at center with their top two lines.
They have to now at the most important time of the season. Roy got the first chance, but he, Stone and Pacioretty were on the ice for one of Montreal’s two first-period goals.
Roy was returned to his normal spot on the third line in the second period, where he’s found recent success with left wing Mattias Janmark and right wing Alex Tuch.
That gave Kolesar, a rookie, a chance to skate with the Knights’ two best forwards. He won an offensive-zone faceoff to set up the team’s first goal.
“It’s a real special privilege playing with players like that,” Kolesar said. “When it’s your chance to produce and get the opportunity, you have to step up to the plate.”
Here are three more takeaways from the loss:
1. Chasing home runs
The Knights attempted a lot of long stretch passes rather than trying to skate the puck through the neutral zone.
They connected on a few. Pacioretty and Tuch got behind the Canadiens’ defense at different points but couldn’t beat goaltender Carey Price.
They missed on most of them, though. It resulted in them icing the puck 10 times. Montreal’s second goal came seven seconds after one of those 10.
The Canadiens iced the puck five times themselves, and the Knights scored their goals off the subsequent offensive-zone draws.
“I think usually o-zone draws, there’s always a plan,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who scored both goals. “There’s always things you’re trying to run to create offense. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We had one that worked tonight and one that was just kind of ad-libbed.”
2. Blue line leads offense
The Knights relied on their blue line for offense for the second straight game.
Pietrangelo’s two goals means five of the team’s six in the series have come from the blue line. Thirty-five of the Knights’ 61 shots on goal have come from defensemen.
The blue line accounted for 36 of the team’s 190 goals and 597 of its 1,829 shots on goal during the regular season.
3. Slow starts
The Knights have scored first in just five of 15 playoff games after falling into a 3-0 hole Wednesday.
They’re 5-5 in the postseason when their opponent scores first after going 9-11 in the regular season.
“We’ve been burnt before,” Stone said. “We got burnt again tonight.”
Game 1: Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Canadiens 3, Knights 2
Game 3: 5 p.m. Friday, Montreal (USA)
Game 4: 5 p.m. Sunday, Montreal (NBCSN)
Game 5: 6 p.m. Tuesday, T-Mobile Arena (NBCSN)
x-Game 6: 5 p.m. June 24, Montreal (USA)
x-Game 7: 5 p.m. June 26, T-Mobile Arena (NBCSN)