Knights get defensive in shutting down NHL’s best line

Updated December 27, 2018 - 11:52 pm

Brayden McNabb talked about time and space Thursday morning, about limiting chances, about reading plays and being smart when pinching.

Then he said this: “If you can get in some hits and be hard on them, maybe you can make it tough for them.”

A few minutes into the Golden Knights-Colorado game Thursday night, McNabb lined things upon and drove Avalanche star center Nathan MacKinnon into the boards.

The best player on hockey’s best line skated off, needing a minute to catch his breath and check his limbs. If it was about sending an early message, McNabb did his best to deliver one.

The Knights responded with a terrific effort against as dangerous a line as they will see all season, beating the Avalanche 2-1 before an announced crowd of 18,505 at T-Mobile Arena.

You can’t play better at even strength against that Colorado line as the Knights did.

You can’t deny it five-on-five like that without being exceptional over three periods.

“Everyone defended well in front of me,” Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “All those guys on (Colorado’s top line) can skate well, but we were physical with them and didn’t give them too much room on the ice.”

Two years ago, Colorado was the NHL’s worst team, a 48-point disaster with a minus-112 in goal differential. I wouldn’t suggest the University of Denver was the state’s best team then but, well, the Pioneers were defending national champions and all …

Last season, the Avalanche were a playoff team that gave Nashville far more of a fight in the first round than most expected, and if not for the historic expansion run by the Knights, Colorado would have received countless more headlines nationally.

Now, it’s third in the Central Division, two points behind the Predators and six back of Winnipeg, looking very much again like a playoff team.

The transformation from awful to competitive was defined in different ways — Colorado eventually got younger and healthier, began killing penalties with some regularity and a top line went from promising to good to great to what is now historically elite.

The numbers are staggering.

MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are being compared to the best lines of the modern era, with all the size and speed and skill and statistics such a lofty standing would demand.

To see them live is to believe it, and the second-largest regular-season home crowd in Knights history did so Thursday.

Rantanen (60) and MacKinnon (57) are second and third in points in the NHL. Landeskog (43) is 16th.

Each is headed toward a career high, and they have accounted for 45 percent of the team’s points.

All of which tells you how good the Knights were against them.

The line managed two points, when Rantanen and MacKinnon picked up assists on J.T. Compher’s power-play goal that gave Colorado a 1-0 lead.

In all, the line had 11 shots, seven by MacKinnon.

McNabb, Schmidt shine

None found their way past Fleury, as Knights coach Gerard Gallant matched his top defensive pairing of McNabb and Nate Schmidt almost exclusively against it, along with fine play from a third line of forwards in Oscar Lindberg, Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter.

“The speed and power of that (Colorado line) stands out,” Gallant said. “Just a lot of talent and skill. They’re having an unbelievable year.

“The plan was to have (McNabb and Schmidt) play it. That’s their job. They were awesome. When you can hold down that line like that, you’ve done a great job.”

A tone was needed for the Knights after two consecutive overtime losses before the break for Christmas, and McNabb chose to set it. A few minutes into the game, he saw the best player on the NHL’s best line and took aim.

“(MacKinnon) is tough to hit,” McNabb said. “I was able to catch him with one. Whenever you can do that against a top player, it’s an added bonus. I don’t know if it did anything to him or whatever, but it was good to be physical.

“It’s fun playing against top-end players. It’s a challenge. You don’t want to give them much. They all have high hockey IQs on that line, so you know they’re going to be creative and make plays.”

They didn’t make many that mattered Thursday.

Credit a collective bunch of Knights for that.

More Golden Knights: Follow all of our Golden Knights coverage online at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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