It’s probably appropriate to wrap up the rookie games with a few observations and notes as gleaned through four days of practices and a pair of rookie games against Vegas, which were split by 6-2 (Kings win) and 4-0 (Golden Knights win) scores.
-First, each win comes with a bit of an asterisk. If both teams are at full strength, Los Angeles has a little bit of an experience advantage because they’re able to bank on more developed players and a greater degree of older players who’d passed through the NCAAs. Because the first player in Vegas franchise history was signed in March, it’s not as if the Golden Knights iced multiple players who’d gone through years of development with the club or players who’d signed after spending multiple years in college. For an example, in Tuesday’s game, Alex Iafallo (turns 24 in December) regularly won match-ups against sixth overall pick Cody Glass (18 years old). That’s not any sort of indictment on any player as much as it is an example of experience, size and strength. (Glass showed a really good ability to distribute the puck and make plays on Wednesday.) Often, the more experienced players – on Vegas’ end, that would be Alex Tuch and Tomas Hyka – were the most impressive. On the second day, with Los Angeles resting several players, including poised defensemen Kale Clague and Sean Walker, Vegas turned the tables and was able to execute their forecheck, which complicated Kings zone exits and entries. That was a reversal from the day before, when L.A. used size and speed to carry the puck into the offensive zone and generate chances by sending forwards down the center of the ice in the attacking end.
-With that said, Jaret Anderson-Dolan, the youngest player on either team, acquitted himself well. He scored a nice insurance goal on Tuesday and rang a puck off the crossbar on Wednesday after generating several good looks on the power play. His quickness was evident. This was a very good exhibition showing for the Spokane Chief, who was just as impressive as Glass and Nick Suzuki, a pair of Golden Knights top-15 picks, if not more so.
-There were several other major-junior based players who impressed. It’s hard to go this far into the evaluation without referencing Matt Luff. With Iafallo, he may have been the first game’s most impressive forward. He showed good speed getting to spots on the ice where he needed to be to score goals, he forechecked and carried the puck cleanly into the offensive zone from the wing. He played with a really good pace. Drake Rymsha also showed good toughness after leaving the game temporarily as the result of a huge hit by Keegan Kolesar that should’ve been flagged for interference. The hit didn’t faze him; he scored a slick goal by driving the net at a high speed and redirecting an Evan Weinger feed over the shoulder of Jiri Patera.
-Goaltending was solid. After an early goal allowed in the first game when Hyka blasted through the Kings defense on a rush, Cal Petersen didn’t allow many second chances and kept a number of difficult pucks in areas where he could be helped out by his defenders. Matt Villalta allowed three goals in the second game but was fine; he didn’t really have a chance to make stops on the first two goals against, and the third came on a deflection. He wasn’t helped out by a (perhaps worn down?) team in front of him on Wednesday but still made a number of difficult saves. It was a strong first showing.
-Clague calmed the game down in a number of situations and used his skating to evade Vegas’ forecheck and get the puck up ice quickly. He has the reputation as an offensive, puck-moving defensemen, but it appears many aspects of his game are really rounding out well. His presence was clearly missed in the second game as Los Angeles was challenged leaving its zone.
-I also asked my broadcast partner about his impressions from the two games. So says Daryl Evans: “I think, Jon, in Game 1, I really liked the play of Cal Petersen in goal. Even though he gave up a goal on the first shot, I thought he really dialed in, got engaged in the game, and the rest of the evening I thought he challenged the puck well. I think probably what most impressed me with him was the way he was able to keep the puck tight to him. Everything stuck to him, and I think that’s a key as you look forward. The Kings are a team that defends very well, and they’re going to give you that one shot. They’ll allow you to see it, so it’s the responsibility of the goaltender to make the save, and I thought he did a good job at doing that the rest of the evening. Going back to Game 1, I thought the Kings, especially the guys they had back on the blue line – Matt Roy and Kale Clague as well – I thought those guys pushed the puck out of the defensive zone, and that allowed the Kings to be able to move through the neutral zone more freely than they did in the second game of the two-game series. I thought they had an impact on that. Anderson-Dolan, I thought that he, too, skated well through the games that he played in. Had the puck on his stick a couple times, saw him put one off the pipe. He scored a goal in the first game. So I think the guys that the Kings were looking for, I thought they were noticeable. Iafallo I thought utilized his skating legs, and he’s got the ability to create some of his own space, and I thought he showed that in both games.”
-Photo credit: Jon Bradley