Following a lengthy road trip, the Kraken had a theme this week in practice: simplify everything.
In the first game at Climate Pledge Arena on Saturday night, that appeared to translate on the ice for the first two periods, even with a defensive lapse at the end of the game that cost an overtime opportunity.
A smarter, dialed-down forecheck, defenders pinching up into the offensive play with more intent and more tactical breakout passes showed a cohesive, cerebral — aside from a second-period turnover resulting in a Canucks goal — Kraken team that has been trying to force its way through. In defeat, it showed the potential of what it could be, if it could get a consistent 60 minutes on the ice.
With the bulk of major firsts out of the way after the home opener, a lot of the focus can shift back to winning hockey games. Until Saturday, the Kraken had never played a real home game, because its preseason home contests were at junior rinks throughout the state while the arena was being finished.
Having that first contest on true home ice signaled the exit of those “first-ever” butterflies for the last time. Attention is now on perfecting the systems coach Dave Hakstol and his staff have been working on implementing.
Much like the season-opening game in Las Vegas, the Kraken came out with a lot of jump, albeit much cleaner. Though the Golden Knights piled on with goals early in that opener, the Kraken had sharper breakouts and a few scoring chances.
“We need to just sometimes simplify a bit more,” Kraken forward Jared McCann said. “Just keep it simple, and go from there, not make things too difficult. I have to do that personally, too.”
Entering Saturday, the Kraken had given up the second-most high-danger chances, behind only its opponent, Vancouver. The matchup was a prime opportunity to settle things down and utilize what it worked on the past couple of days in practice.
Doing that in a friendly environment, working out of facilities of its own, should have been a source of comfort and confidence.
“It’s the simplicity of the transition both ways, from the defensive side of the puck to getting out offensively and back,” Hakstol said. “As well as getting back defensively, that has to be better for us. We’re not generating enough offensively with our transition, which is what we’ve talked about and worked at with the speed of that transition.”
The initial road trip spanned three time zones, enough to wear down the most seasoned teams. The Kraken showed more jump to open Saturday than it had in Philadelphia or New Jersey earlier in the week.
“The main focus is playing fast in the neutral zone; the transitions get to be faster,” center Yanni Gourde said. “Our game has to be simpler, like just take the puck and go to work, get in dirty areas and make it hard on them.”
The Kraken had more speed early in the first period against the Canucks. Gourde had a near-chance just 20 seconds into the game, a would-be breakout if not played by a high stick. McCann, streaking out of the penalty box, had a solid chance denied by Thatcher Demko in the Vancouver net.
The defensive structure held the Canucks to the outside, even on the power play. Early on, the Kraken lacked offensive zone time, but never felt out of control. In fact, it dominated in the high-danger areas early, and that paid off when Vince Dunn scored the first home goal in franchise history with just 4.6 seconds remaining in the opening frame.
It looked closer to what type of team the Kraken has advertised itself to be, and just in time for its home audience. Even as the game slipped a bit in the second and the Canucks responded, especially on Demko’s part in net, it was a peek into the Kraken’s potential ceiling.
“It’s just going to go towards our identity,” Gourde said. “We want to be a tough team to play against, and I think that’s part of it.”
Mistakes still happened; Mark Giordano’s misguided clear attempt in the second burned the Kraken, and stole the momentum it earned in the first period, draining the building of some of its energy for the first time.
But for the most part, playing in front of a real home crowd for the first time, the Kraken had an energy that, while it didn’t lack in its first game, was more focused in the first period. Perhaps that’s the sign of a team that, even five games deep into its inaugural campaign, was that much more defined in its goal. It’s what, when the Kraken is clicking on all cylinders, its ceiling might be as a smart hockey team.
There won’t be a first-ever home Kraken game again; on Saturday, from a history standpoint, at least, the Kraken made the most of the moment.
“What’s the game of hockey without any pressure?” McCann said. “It’s kind of fun like this.”