Vegas’ big defensemen paying big dividends vs. Panthers

Alex Pietrangelo gets beaten up a lot this time of year.

The veteran Vegas Golden Knights defenseman understands the grind of a long playoff run and the toll it can take. The good news is Vegas’ blue line ranges from 6-foot-1 to 6-6, the kind of size that has allowed the Golden Knights to advance to the verge of winning the Stanley Cup.

Vegas has successfully bucked the trend of smaller defensemen by having bigger players at the position who can skate quickly and move the puck efficiently in line with modern hockey.

“You’re able to take the hits and you’re able to withstand a little bit more physical play,” Pietrangelo said. “As a group, we’re able to handle that, but I think we skate well enough, too, where we can get out of that. I think we’ve got a good balance back there of size and speed.”

Pietrangelo is 6-3 and line partner Alec Martinez is two inches shorter. Nic Hague is 6-6, Zach Whitecloud and Shea Theodore 6-2, and original Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb is 6-3.

None are the dinosaurs of hockey’s past who could hit but not do much else but clear the front of the net. They’re still physical when they need to be.

“We’re not going to get pushed out of the game,” Hague said. “We can hold our own winning puck battles, and we want to try to move the puck quick in transition.”

Fleet-footed defensemen who can swiftly move the puck up ice are the flavor of the decade in the NHL. Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy had 5-9 Torey Krug with him on the Boston Bruins when they lost in the final to Pietrangelo and the Blues in 2019.

Cassidy has since learned about Pietrangelo being an all-around player and knows defensemen of various shapes and sizes can pave the way to the Cup. Vegas happens to be big and can handle the bruising.

“For right now, that’s how we’re built and it’s working for us,” Cassidy said. “It’s not always the physical part. It’s the length sometimes to get inside, right? That’s the system you play. Your stick length, you’re just getting into people when you’re longer and taller and heavier and wear people down.”

The Golden Knights haven’t just worn opponents down. They’ve also been able to absorb the punishment that comes with a long playoff run, an important ingredient in winning.

At those times, size matters.

“All playoffs long, you’ve got guys who are going to come in and every check gets finished,” Hague said. “It’s a pretty physical game out there, and we’ll never get pushed out of it and that won’t deter us from trying to do what we’re going to do because we can handle it.”