Golden Knights didn’t win Stanley Cup, but they aren’t failures

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After falling to the Canadiens in overtime of an entertaining Game 6, the Golden Knights likely feel exhausted, and deflated.

Drill down into different aspects of that Canadiens – Golden Knights series, and you can identify plenty of regrets. Mark Stone himself admitted he got “skunked.” As tremendous — unsustainably tremendous — as Carey Price was on the penalty kill, the Golden Knights’ power play was a total dud.

” … They owned the key moments of the series,” Peter DeBoer said after Game 6, via TSN.

“When they got a chance, they stuck it in the net. When they needed a big save, they got a big save. They won the overtime battle. They won the special-teams battle. If you’re losing those areas of the game, you’re putting yourself in a tough spot.”

Once again, the Golden Knights fell just short of their ultimate goal: advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, and winning it all. This franchise spent a lot of money and assets to try to win a Stanley Cup. Instead, Golden Knights fans are starting to pile up some playoff heartache.

[MORE: How the Canadiens shocked the Golden Knights, and the NHL]

But few other NHL fans will feel much sympathy for the still-new Golden Knights. And you know what? Those fans are right. Because, in the grand scheme of things, the Golden Knights remain a stunning success.

Really, they’ve been so successful, so often, that people might take those successes for granted. Let’s count some of the ways the Golden Knights have succeeded.

Shrewd expansion draft moves still paying dividends

The 2020-21 Golden Knights look dramatically different from the debut squad that stunned their way to a 2018 Stanley Cup Final appearance.

Even so, the Golden Knights expansion draft remains the gift that keeps giving.

Did they really want to keep Marc-Andre Fleury in 2020-21? Deep down, maybe not. But he put together a blazingly brilliant season, finishing as a Vezina finalists. While he ran out of steam, Fleury also provided some playoff brilliance.

If we’re being honest, Reilly SmithWilliam KarlssonJonathan Marchessault looked like the “real” Golden Knights top line in Game 6, rather than “the other top line.”

And, while you can quibble with Shea Theodore‘s argument as a Norris-range defenseman, you’d be straining the limits of logic to claim that he hasn’t been an enormous success for the Golden Knights. (Also: he might be the first bullet point in an argument for why Bob Murray’s seemingly lost his touch in Anaheim.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Once the Golden Knights enjoyed shocking early success, they diverted from their main focus of the expansion draft: piling up a bunch of draft picks. As much as it stung to see Nick Suzuki power Montreal to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final, even that process helped Vegas. They used excess picks to land some of the big fish on the trade market, and that mostly worked out.

(Also: while people aren’t as ecstatic about the Golden Knights’ prospect pool as they once were, it’s still a respected group.)

No Stanley Cup, but Golden Knights have generated great results overall

For some, an NHL team is a failure if they don’t win the Stanley Cup.

Frankly, that seems silly, and maybe a downright unhealthy way to view sports. Stack up what the Golden Knights have accomplished since their inaugural 2017-18 season, and you won’t find many teams who have been more successful:

  • They’ve won their division twice. This year, they fell short … because the tiebreaker went to the Avalanche, who oh yeah, also won the Presidents’ Trophy.
  • In three of four playoff runs, they’ve won at least two series. That wild and wildly unlucky Game 7 loss to Peter DeBoer and the Sharks marks the only time the Golden Knights fell in the First Round.
  • Generally speaking, they’ve been fun to watch. For rival fans, that might translate to a “love to hate” vibe. But they’ve rarely been boring.

That’s … pretty amazing, right? Here’s another sign that the Golden Knights are a smash success: the bar seems way, way too high for the Seattle Kraken.

Vegas Golden Knights v Colorado Avalanche - Game Five
(Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Quite a track record with big gambles

Let’s be honest: the Golden Knights rode a ton of luck during that first season. Credit a sharp management team for a) identifying the few stars who’ve become available and b) doing what it took to land the ones who are positive difference-makers.

Look around the NHL, and you’ll see plenty of gambles that look like failures. Some of those went bust shortly after the ink dried on ill-fated contracts.

Culminating with Matt Duchene, the Predators’ run of bold moves plummeted from savvy to scary. Those Sharks have beached with Erik Karlsson merely the biggest of several albatross deals. Avert your eyes from that Sergei Bobrovsky contract.

Meanwhile, the Golden Knights didn’t sink when they made their big splashes.

Big returns for their new top line

Again, yes, Mark Stone got “skunked.” He’s absorbing a rare bit of the sort of blame stars experience in markets like Montreal.

But those criticisms are rooted, in part, because of how high expectations were. After joining the Golden Knights, Mark Stone’s risen from two-way rising star to a no-doubt-about-it superstar.

Maybe Stone’s rise might explain why Max Pacioretty slips under the radar a bit. How many people realize that, with 24 goals, Max Pacioretty tied for 13th in the NHL with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby,  and Sebastian Aho?

Where the Golden Knights made expensive bets on Pacioretty and Stone, they bought low on the severely underrated Chandler Stephenson.

Sure, it was disappointing to see that trio come up short against the Canadiens (even if the Habs deserve a ton of credit, especially pizza-loving, Selke-grade forward Phillip Danault). Yet it’s fair to point out that a healthy version of that line might have been more productive.

Pacioretty missed most of the First Round. Stephenson sat out a chunk of the Canadiens – Golden Knights series. And it’s possible Stone was nursing something too (it was the playoffs, after all).

Even if you show no mercy to them … they still mostly delivered as a genuine top line. That doesn’t always happen when a team invests in big stars.

(It’s easy to forget how important Stone was in the Golden Knights slowing down Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche, for example.)

Pietrangelo and other investments shine

Remember when Alex Pietrangelo seemed like a letdown for the Golden Knights?

Whether you prefer your stats fancy or traditional, Pietrangelo struggled a bit (by his standards) during the regular season. That changed during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, though.

Pietrangelo finished second on the Golden Knights in playoff scoring with 12 points, including four goals. Pietrangelo scored three of those goals against Montreal, crucial stuff when Vegas couldn’t buy a bucket.

Along with bringing that offense, Pietrangelo was sound defensively, and provided a steadying presence in transition. After tough years for Nate Schmidt and Paul Stastny, the Golden Knights look justified in straining to add the former Blues star.

You can extend the kudos to other, smaller moves. Alec Martinez isn’t perfect, but he was mostly a nice find for Vegas. While firing Gerard Gallant was questionable, it seems like Peter DeBoer mostly pushes the right buttons.

Challenges ahead

Now, can the Golden Knights sustain these successes, and maybe even win that Stanley Cup? They have to hope that they didn’t already enjoy their best chances.

The biggest downside to their team-building strategy is that their core looks shockingly old for a team that’s existed for four seasons. Pacioretty is 32, Pietrangelo is 31, Stone is 29, and that other first line has some mileage (Marchessault and Smith are 30; William Karlsson is 28). Marc-Andre Fleury’s carefree attitude belies his age (36). Even Robin Lehner‘s no baby at 29.

Now, those ages don’t scream “drastic decline.” But it’s at least a consideration. That’s especially true because they’ve been through some grueling playoff battles.

Maybe that’s where a prospect like Peyton Krebs comes in. Or perhaps the Golden Knights will once again roll the dice, this time focusing on, say, a more established center?

Eventually, those big bets might not pay off. If you can zoom out from the disappointment of falling to an underdog (but underrated) Canadiens team, it should be clear that the Golden Knights’ successes massively outweigh their failures.

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTS (MTL wins series 4-2)

Game 1: Golden Knights 4, Canadiens 1
Game 2: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2 (OT)
Game 4: Golden Knights 2, Canadiens 1 (OT)

Game 5: Canadiens 4, Golden Knights 1
Game 6: Canadiens 3, Golden Knights 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Penguins plot a way forward as Letang recovers from stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang returned to the ice on Thursday, just three days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The “twirl” the longtime Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman took at the club’s practice facility was approved by team doctors, a spin designed to help Letang’s mental health and nothing else. While the 35-year-old remains upbeat, it remains far too early to put a timeline on when his familiar No. 58 will return to the lineup.

Though Pittsburgh general manager Ron Hextall indicated this stroke isn’t as severe as the one Letang endured in 2014 – when a hole in the wall of his heart led to a stroke that forced him to miss two months – the six-time All-Star is continuing to undergo tests.

There are no plans for Letang to participate in any sort of hockey-specific drills anytime soon, with coach Mike Sullivan stressing the club will “err on the side of caution” when it comes to whatever rehab Letang might need.

While Letang – one of the most well-conditioned players in the NHL – essentially went through the motions by himself, his teammates were 30 minutes south at PPG Paints Arena getting ready for a visit from Vegas and trying to plot a way forward without one of the franchise cornerstones, at least in the short term.

Letang made it a point to help break the news to the rest of the Penguins following a 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina on Tuesday. Pittsburgh scratched Letang from the lineup with an unspecified illness and he spent a portion of the game watching from the press box next to Hextall.

Afterward, Letang informed a somber locker room about his condition, a revelation that came as a shock even as he did his best to reassure those around him that he was and is OK.

“It’s very serious health stuff,” defenseman Chad Ruhwedel said. “You hear about strokes and it’s never really good so we’re just glad to see he’s doing well and everything is good with him.”

Sullivan understands it would be practically impossible for any of the other defensemen on the roster to replicate what Letang brings to the ice, so he’s not going to ask any one player to try. There are few players at the position in the NHL who have Letang’s mix of speed, skill and almost bottomless energy.

The highest-scoring defenseman in franchise history is averaging a team-best 23:54 of ice time and has long been a fixture on the power play and in just about every crucial late-game situation.

“I just think Tanger is not an easy guy to replace,” Sullivan said. “I don’t think from a tactical standpoint things change drastically. It’s just personnel based. But as you know, personnel can mean a lot in those types of situations.”

It’s more than that, however. This isn’t a routine injury. There’s an emotional component and an unknown element to Letang’s status even as the Penguins insist they don’t believe his condition is career-threatening.

“This is a whole different circumstance than an ankle injury or a shoulder injury,” Sullivan said. “This is a very different circumstance.”

Letang’s on-ice presence is just one aspect of his importance to a team that has never missed the playoffs since he made his debut in 2007. He’s become a mentor to younger teammates like 23-year-old defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who like Letang is French-Canadian and who, like Letang, plays with a graceful fluidity.

Joseph, who declined to get into specifics about Letang’s message to the team on Tuesday night, believes the best thing the Penguins can do during Letang’s absence is attack the game with the same passion he’s shown for 17 seasons and counting.

“The way he plays for the team every single night and the way he puts his heart and soul into the game on the ice, it’s the least we can do is have our thoughts of him whenever we get on the ice,” Joseph said.

Sullivan shuffled the lineup on Tuesday, elevating veteran Jeff Petry and Brian Dumoulin to the top defensive pair. Petry possesses a skillset that’s not too far removed from Letang’s, but it’s also his first year in Pittsburgh. Asking him to provide the leadership that’s innate to Letang is unfair. It’s one of the reasons Sullivan is insistent that it will take a group effort to fill in for a singular presence.

“We have some diversity on our blue line right now,” Sullivan said. “We feel like we have guys capable of stepping in and getting the job done for us and we’re going to try and do that.”

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.