The Vegas Golden Knights held their first practice of the postseason Monday morning at City National Arena.
There was palpable energy on the ice as the Golden Knights skated for the first time with the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoff logo on their helmets. Vegas has known that it is going to face San Jose in the first round of the playoffs for a few weeks, but Monday's skate was the first day they could really start preparing for their opening round opponent.
During four games between Vegas and San Jose during the regular season, forwards Logan Couture (2G, 2A) and Tomas Hertl (2G, 1A) were the two most efficient offensive players for the Sharks. Hertl notched a career-high 74 points (35G, 39A) during the regular season while Couture hit the 70-point mark (27G, 43A) for the first time in his career. They will be pivotal pieces to the San Jose offense against Vegas, but defenseman Nate Schmidt said the Golden Knights are emphasizing good positioning to slow their opponents down.
"It's all about how we contain their speed and, when they shield the puck, we can't let them use that against us," Schmidt said. "With a guy like Hertl, you can't play his body because he's too big, so you have to stay in good position. If we keep those guys off the scoreboard, we have a much better chance of winning the series than if we don't keep them off the board."
The Golden Knights clinched a playoff berth on March 29 during a 3-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild. While locking up a spot in the postseason was cause for celebration, that loss was Vegas' fourth in a row and the team wrapped up the regular season with only one win in its final eight contests. Defenseman Jon Merrill said that the team is not concerned with that stretch as the playoffs begin.
"A team can reset automatically after the regular season," Merrill said. "It's a great accomplishment to make the playoffs and it doesn't really matter what you did the week before or the month before. It's a new season and everyone's got an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup."
Vegas is one of five teams in the Western Conference looking for its first Stanley Cup in franchise history. The league's newest franchise was three wins away from the title last season but fell to the Washington Capitals in a five-game Stanley Cup Final. While last year's run is on obvious storyline heading into this year's playoffs, Merrill said the team isn't harping on what happened last season.
"We're aware of the run we went on last year and we'd like to bottle up the way we did things last year and use them again this year," said Merrill. "You can't look too far in the future or the past or you're going to falter in the present. We're focused on taking things shift-by-shift and seeing where it goes."
Schmidt wants his team to draw on what worked well for them mentally last spring and apply that to this year's postseason.
"One thing I loved about last year is that we weren't even thinking about getting to the Final," Schmidt said. "We were just thinking about winning each game, each series and having fun with it. We're playing playoff hockey. Every day should feel like the best day of your life."
The Golden Knights will continue to prepare for the first round of the playoffs on and off the ice before Game 1 at 7:30 p.m. at SAP Center. While teams feel the pressure to perform during the postseason, Schmidt said that the key to success is to stay focused on having fun.
"It's like Christmas for hockey players," said Schmidt. "Being here with this group, we couldn't be happier. We want to go out there and get it done."