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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    Blue Jackets acquire D Damon Severson from Devils after he signs 8-year deal

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Damon Severson from the New Jersey Devils on Friday after the veteran defenseman and soon-to-be free agent signed an eight-year $50 million contract.

    Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen sent a third-round pick, 80th overall, in this month’s draft to the Devils for Severson, who will be under contract through the 2030-31 NHL season.

    Severson had 58 goals and 205 assists in 647 career appearances with the Devils since making his NHL debut in 2014-15. He scored seven game-winning goals and averaged more than 21 minutes of playing time during his nine seasons. The 28-year-old had seven goals and 26 assists this season, including two game-winning goals, in 81 games.

    “Damon is a versatile defenseman who has great vision, moves the puck extremely well, has good size and can play heavy minutes at both ends of the ice,” Kekalainen said.

    The Canadian was selected in the second round in the 2012 draft. He has collected 30 or more points five times in his career and twice notched 11 or more goals. He played in every game in three straight seasons from 2018-21 and has played 80 or more contests four times in his career.

    With the addition of the third-round pick, New Jersey now has six selections in the draft, including its own picks in rounds two, four, five, six and seven.

    Matthew Tkachuk returns from big hit in Stanley Cup Final, adds more playoff heroics

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    Matthew Tkachuk was down, out briefly and then back with plenty of time to make a difference.

    The Florida Panthers star left early in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final after a big hit from Vegas Golden Knights forward Keegan Kolesar, and he missed most of the first period and didn’t return immediately following intermission while being evaluated for a concussion. After looking as if he might be lost for the night, Tkachuk returned in the second and then came through with more of his now trademark playoff heroics.

    Tkachuk scored the tying goal with 2:13 left in regulation, forcing overtime and giving the Panthers new life. He then provided the screen on Carter Verhaeghe‘s OT goal for a 3-2 victory that cut Florida’s series deficit to 2-1.

    The 25-year-old said he knew he was coming back when he left the game, pulled by concussion spotters. That absence felt like a long time ago in the aftermath of another big win he was largely responsible for.

    “I felt great – I feel great,” Tkachuk said. “I’m ready to go. Everybody’s excited that we’re in this position right now.”

    Florida is in this position rather than facing elimination in Game 4 on Saturday thanks in large part to Tkachuk, who also set up Brandon Montour‘s goal that opened the scoring less than five minutes in.

    Not long after, Tkachuk stumbled getting up after the hit from Kolesar and skated to the bench. He took a shift on Florida’s power play before going down the tunnel at the demand of concussion spotters mandated by NHL protocol.

    At that point, there was zero clarity, even on the Florida bench.

    “You’re not informed at all: It’s a complete shutdown,” coach Paul Maurice said. “You are completely in the dark on those. You don’t know when the player’s coming back. There’s not an update.”

    Players insist they were not worried. Montour called it a no-brainer.

    “He’s going to come back no matter what,” captain Aleksander Barkov said. “He’s really tough guy, and he’s going to battle through everything.”

    Tkachuk rejoined his teammates on the bench a few minutes into the second. When he stepped back onto the ice for his first shift since leaving, fans cheered and chanted, “Chucky! Chucky!”

    The crowd was even louder and threw rats when Tkachuk scored his biggest goal of many during this run to tie it. He didn’t get an assist on Verhaeghe’s goal but made it happen with a tape-to-tape pass in the neutral zone and was in front of Adin Hill when it happened.

    Asked if he was happy Tkachuk returned, Maurice joked that it was after midnight.

    “It was fine,” he quipped.

    Panthers rally, top Golden Knights 3-2 in OT of Game 3 of Stanley Cup final

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    SUNRISE, Fla. — Carter Verhaeghe scored 4:27 into overtime and the Florida Panthers pulled off some more postseason dramatics to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday night.

    Matthew Tkachuk tied it with 2:13 left in the third period for the Panthers, who got the franchise’s first title-series game win in seven tries. Florida had to fend off a power play to start overtime, and Verhaeghe got the winner from the slot to get the Panthers within 2-1 in the series.

    Game 4 is Saturday night.

    Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 shots for Florida. Adin Hill made 20 saves for Vegas, but got beat on the only shot that came his way in overtime.

    Brandon Montour also scored for Florida, which pulled Bobrovsky down 2-1 late in the third for the extra attacker and Tkachuk — who left for parts of the first and second periods after taking a big hit — made that move pay off when he tied the game.

    His goal breathed life into a very nervous building. But the Panthers were furious — and replays showed they had a case — when Gustav Forsling was sent to the box with 11.2 seconds remaining for tripping. Florida survived that scare, and a few minutes later, had life in the series again.

    The odds are still long, but the Panthers at least have a bit more statistical hope now. Of the previous 55 teams to trail 2-1 at this point of the Stanley Cup Final, 11 have actually rallied to hoist the trophy.

    It’s improbable, sure. So are the Panthers, who were the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, were down 3-1 to Boston in Round 1, were 133 seconds away from trailing this series 3-0 — and now have tons of reasons for optimism.

    Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone each had power-play goals for Vegas.

    Marchessault’s goal was his 13th in his last 13 playoff games, his fourth of this series and his third with the man advantage.

    As if all that wasn’t enough, there was a little history in there as well. Vegas joined the 1980 New York Islanders as the only team with at least two power-play goals in three consecutive games in the Cup final. And Marchessault became the third player in the last 35 years to score in each of the first three games of a title series — joining Steve Yzerman in 1997 with Detroit and Jake Guentzel with Pittsburgh in 2017.

    But it wasn’t enough to give Vegas a 3-0 lead in the series.


    Before Thursday, Florida’s last home game in the title series was June 10, 1996, when Uwe Krupp scored in the third overtime for a 1-0 win as Colorado finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers for the Cup. … Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was in the crowd, as was NBA great Charles Barkley, and former Dolphins star Dan Marino was the celebrity drummer to welcome the Panthers onto the ice.

    Blackhawks, Athanasiou agree to 2-year, $8.5 million contract

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    CHICAGO — The rebuilding Chicago Blackhawks locked in one of their top scorers, agreeing to a two-year, $8.5 million contract with forward Andreas Athanasiou on Thursday.

    The 28-year-old Athanasiou tied for the team lead with 20 goals and ranked third with 40 points in his first season with Chicago. He matched career highs with four game-winning goals and three power-play goals.

    The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Athanasiou has 125 goals and 111 assists in 459 games with the Detroit Red Wings (2015-20), Edmonton Oilers (2020), Los Angeles Kings (2020-22) and Blackhawks.

    Chicago went 26-49-7 and finished last in the Central Division. The Blackhawks dealt Patrick Kane to the New York Rangers prior to the trade deadline and announced in April they would not re-sign Jonathan Toews, parting with two players who led them to Stanley Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015.