Pete DeBoer slid the puck into the corner, and the Golden Knights coach watched as three players raced after it and tried to gain possession along the wall.
A few seconds later, incensed by the lack of action, DeBoer halted Wednesday’s practice at City National Arena and briefly lit into his team.
“This is a body-checking drill!” he shouted during his quick, PG-13 lecture. “Get in and separate someone!”
With the Knights stumbling to five losses in their past six games and failing to take advantage of their extended homestand, one area that has particularly bothered DeBoer is the lack of physicality.
That point was driven home to the Knights again before Thursday’s game against Montreal at T-Mobile Arena.
“This isn’t a new thing. This is a constant messaging because come playoff time, as we all know, a lot of games are won in the front of both nets,” DeBoer said. “It’s not a new message because of what happened against Pittsburgh. It’s a message that is constant but sometimes needs reminding.”
Penguins winger Jake Guentzel stuffed in a third-period wraparound for the winner before Mattias Janmark could arrive on the scene for the Knights. Jason Zucker scored the first of his two goals during a goalmouth scramble on a power play in the second period, and Teddy Blueger beat defenseman Dylan Coghlan to a rebound near the top of the crease.
After the game, a frustrated DeBoer said the Knights are “still a little soft” around their own net.
“They’re scrums around our net where we’re just not inside people,” DeBoer said. “We’re not hard enough around the front of the net.”
The Knights’ current lineup lacks a rugged, crease-clearing defenseman in the mold of Deryk Engelland, who had his flaws but at least brought an intimidation factor to opposing forwards standing around the blue paint.
Brayden McNabb might be the closest replica the Knights have in that department with Alec Martinez and Nic Hague unavailable.
Martinez wore a red, noncontact jersey at Wednesday’s practice as he works his way back from a head injury and a recent stay in COVID protocol. Hague (wrist) hasn’t played since Dec. 28 at Los Angeles.
But being physical in front of the net is about more than clearing out an opposing forward the way defensemen used to 30 or 40 years ago. With referees clamping down on cross-checking and other similar infractions, there is more emphasis on positioning to box out offensive players and tying up their sticks.
“You have to try and draw down a fine line, I guess, because sometimes the refs will be a little sticky on you if you are too hard,” defenseman Ben Hutton said. “It is a little bit of technique now that the game has changed a little bit, but at the same time, it’s just being strong.”
The Knights rank 28th in the NHL in hits per 60 minutes, which isn’t an accurate indicator of a team’s physicality, especially around the net. Last season, the Knights were 18th after ranking in the top four the previous two seasons.
Winger Ryan Reaves, one of the league’s leaders in hits the past four seasons, departed in the offseason, and the Knights’ fourth line lacks the heavy identity it had. Winger William Carrier no longer plays a kamikaze style, leaving most of the hitting to third-line winger Keegan Kolesar.
There are other ways for the forwards to be more physical, though, whether it’s boxing out in front of the net or taking the body against the boards to help start the breakout.
“It’s different for every player, but just try to clear the way so the goalies can see it as much as possible,” center William Karlsson said. “Try to pin them to the walls and have the second guy come and get the puck and stuff like that. Little details. That’s why we have coaches, to point out what we can do better.”
Who: Golden Knights vs. Canadiens
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757)
Radio: KKGK (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -340; total 6