Golden Knights on playoff bubble; how concerned should they be?

Vegas Golden Knights
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When the 2021-22 NHL season began the Vegas Golden Knights were not only viewed as a slam dunk playoff team, they were the runaway favorites to win a Pacific Division that looked short on contending teams.

Add the in-season addition of Jack Eichel to the mix, and they should be one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the entire league. Crazy how quickly things can change.

After dropping back-to-back games over the weekend, including a very ugly loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the Golden Knights now find themselves in third place in the Pacific Division, losing ground to both the Calgary Flames and Los Angeles Kings, and suddenly on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference overall.

It is, quite frankly, one of the most stunning developments in the league this season.

As of Sunday evening the Golden Knights are six points back of Calgary for the top spot in the Pacific (while Calgary still has two games in hand), three points behind the Kings (in the same number of games played), only one point ahead of Edmonton (same number of games), and only three points ahead of Anaheim. Expanding things to the Wild Card side of things, Dallas is also just one point back with a game in hand.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is a fight, and Vegas now finds itself right in the middle of it.

The Golden Knights have been one of the league’s most successful teams since entering the NHL in 2017-18 and have an ownership group and front office that is willing to do anything in its quest to get over the hump and win a Stanley Cup. Sitting on the playoff bubble and fighting just to get in the playoffs is not where anybody expected them to be three quarters of the way through the season.

So what happened?

A lot of the problems started in January, with the Golden Knights going just 7-8-4 in their 19 games since the start of the new year, with only five of those wins coming in regulation.

Their underlying numbers during 5-on-5 play are still mostly strong. They outshoot their opponents, they outchance them, they have an edge in expected goals and scoring chances (via Natural Stat Trick). There are two big problems during that stretch.

The first is the fact starting goalie Robin Lehner has missed almost all of February, leaving the net in the hands of Laurent Broissant. Lehner has played in just two games this month, with the Golden Knights going just 2-3-1 in the games he has missed.

The bigger problem, though, is the simple fact the puck is not going in the net for them. Since January 1 the Golden Knights are scoring on just 6.3 percent of their shots during 5-on-5 play (second worst in the league) and only 7.5 percent of their shots in all situations (the worst mark in the league).

They are getting chances. They are not getting goals. This has been a problem for them at times over the past few years, especially as they get deeper into the playoffs and face better defenses and better goaltending. Getting a top-line center like Eichel in the mix can help that, but he has only played five games to this point.

Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone have both missed significant time over the past two months, and there remains no timetable for the latter’s return to the lineup. Their absences — and Stone’s continued absence — has put a major dent in the offense. That has all coincided with several other key players going cold. After a great start to the season Chandler Stephenson has gone cold over the past two months (just two goals and seven points in his past 17 games), while Evgenii Dadonov, Reilly Smith, and William Karlsson have combined for just nine goals on 128 shots on goal during that stretch.

Are they actually going to miss the playoffs?

This still seems hard to believe, even with their current place in the standings. Only 11 of their remaining 29 games are against teams currently occupying a playoff spot, and a lot of their underlying numbers remain strong. They are getting crushed by injuries and percentages right now. Some of those are going to reverse, and with Pacioretty and Eichel back in the lineup that is going to help. The big questions are going to be when they get Stone back, and how long they are without Lehner and if they have to add somebody to strengthen the depth there.

If they did miss though the organizational fallout from that would probably be ridiculous. There is perhaps no team in the NHL willing to be as aggressive and bold as the Golden Knights when it comes to pursuing a championship. The firing of Gerard Gallant, the acquisition of Robin Lehner, benching of Marc-Andre Fleury, the trade of Fleury, and the pursuits of Pacioretty, Stone, Eichel, and Alex Pietrangelo show just how bold this team is willing to be. They have known, to this point, nothing but success and still make drastic changes when they do not win it all. It would be wild to see how they handle missing the playoffs this season.

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    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports
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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.