Golden Knights have nobody to blame but themselves

Golden Knights
Zak Krill/NHLI via Getty Images
2 Comments

If you wanted to be generous you could point to a handful of reasons as to why the 2021-22 Vegas Golden Knights ended up being a colossal disappointment and spectacular failure on the ice.

The biggest reason, of course, might be injuries.

Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Alec Martinez, Reilly Smith, William Karlsson, and Robin Lehner all missed time this season (some of them significant time), while Jack Eichel did not make his season debut until January after being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres.

With some better health luck their season almost certainly would have been different. Maybe this preseason Stanley Cup contender wouldn’t have fallen flat on its face and missed the playoffs entirely for the first time in its five-year existence.

But pointing to that — and only that — would be giving them an excuse. It would be giving them an easy way out. And quite frankly, they do not deserve an easy way out or your generosity because a lot of their problems this season were their own creation, while they failed to take care of their own business down the stretch when the schedule (and their health) should have been in their favor.

[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

Let’s start with the injuries

The most significant of those belonged to Stone, Pacioretty, and Martinez. And that definitely took a toll, especially as it related to Pacioretty and Stone who both missed half of the season.

But the Golden Knights are not the only preseason playoff contender that lost key players for significant chunks of the season.

For example:

All three of those teams comfortably qualified for the playoffs in significantly tougher divisions than the one Vegas played in. Beyond that, once Vegas did get healthier down the stretch with the returns of Stone, Pacioretty, and Martinez, not to mention a healthy Jack Eichel, they only went 3-3-4 in their past 10 games with losses to Vancouver (twice!), San Jose, New Jersey, and Chicago, not to mention a crucial head-to-head to loss to Dallas. The New Jersey loss is especially unforgivable given that it came at home, against a Devils team that entered the night having lost 13 of 16, has not won a game since, and was playing without its best player (Jack Hughes) and starting a third-string goalie (Andrew Hammond). How do you drop that game with your season on the line?

[Related: 2022 Stanley Cup playoff field set]

Even worse, the key players that they were missing for most of the season were mostly invisible during these key games.

• Eichel had five points over the past 10 games and was largely invisible in most games.

• Stone had zero goals and one assist.

• Pacioretty had three goals.

Jonathan Marchessault had one goal.

Their top offensive players during the stretch run were Chandler Stephenson and Evgenii Dadonov, a player that would not have even been on the roster had his no-trade clause been messed up at the  NHL trade deadline. And that does not even get into the fact that in their three consecutive shootout losses their skaters went a shocking and historically bad 0-for-17, wasting a valiant effort from goalie Logan Thompson who did everything he could to save their season.

Before that 10-game stretch began Vegas looked like a team that was starting to put it all together and could potentially be a nightmare matchup if it got in, and there was very good reason to believe in them once they got those players back. And then they got them back in the lineup and the bottom totally fell out.

Problems beyond injuries

Injuries are a fact of life in the NHL and every team has to deal with them and there is not much you can do to control them. Some teams are able to overcome it. Vegas did not. But Vegas also did itself no favors with the things it could control, including roster construction and its entire organizational philosophy.

From the very beginning of its existence Vegas has operated like a pre-salary cap spender where every big name player that becomes available is a realistic target for them, no matter the cost and no matter what they have to do to get it. They act like the salary cap does not exist and are always in the running for every star that becomes available, with Eichel being the most recent.

Individually, there is nothing wrong with any of the signings or trades they made. Stone and Pacioretty have been great. Alex Pietranagelo is a top-pairing defender. Eichel should (emphasis on should) be a cornerstone player going forward. But it has all helped cause havoc on their salary cap situation, especially when combined with other moves on the fringes, and cut into their depth, both in terms of what they have given up in trades and limiting what they can do with the rest of their roster.

For example: Taking on Dadonov’s contract from Ottawa, only to trade for Eichel a couple of months later, knowing full well the salary cap gymnastics it would require.

Or signing Robin Lehner to a long-term deal with a $5 million cap hit when they already had Marc-Andre Fleury, eventually creating a situation where they were going to have to essentially give one of them away due to cap constraints. They of course sent away Fleury just a couple of months after he won the 2020-21 Vezina Trophy. In hindsight, it was a catastrophic decision.

It was another example of just how cutthroat and ruthless this organization has been in its quest to add the next superstar and chase after the Cup.

Vegas fired Gerard Gallant early in year three (with a winning record!) after being behind the bench for consecutive playoff appearances and a Cup Final appearance in year one. They replaced him with Peter DeBoer, who has now created drama with two different goalies in the past three years (Fleury, for benching him in the playoffs for Lehner; and then Lehner for his handling of his injury situation and seemingly calling him out for not being available down the stretch this year).

All of it together almost makes it seem like there is no plan beyond “see big name player; acquire big name player; worry about the rest later.” 

It ultimately looks like a directionless organization that succeeds by accident rather than some smart grand plan. It all finally caught up to them this season and it cost them what should have been a guaranteed trip to the playoffs.

Now we get to see what happens this offseason as they try to clean up the gigantic mess they made for themselves.

Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

Mitch Marner
USA Today
0 Comments

TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

Kyle Ross-USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

“My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

“We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

“It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

“We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

“He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

buffalo sabres
Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
1 Comment

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

“It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

“That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

“We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.

STREAKING

Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.

UP NEXT

Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

washington capitals
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports
0 Comments

PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.