Golden Knights’ second act shaping up to rival first

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LAS VEGAS — Shea Theodore and Alex Tuch had to have faith.

When the Vegas Golden Knights decided to send them to the minors at the start of last season, Theodore and Tuch chose to believe what general manager George McPhee told them.

”The message was that we were part of the future of this team and he definitely saw us in that long-term plan,” Theodore said.

Within weeks, they were back in the NHL as part of the fastest-starting expansion team in history and played significant roles in the Golden Knights’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. Each player got a long-term contract before he played his first game this season, and they weren’t alone as McPhee went about the process of turning Vegas from a one-year wonder into a perennial title contender.

He locked up 75-point forward Jonathan Marchessault through 2024, signed face-of-the-franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to a three-year extension, inked defenseman Nate Schmidt to a six-year contract that begins next season, signed center Paul Stastny as a free agent and acquired big winger Max Pacioretty in a trade with Montreal. Those moves have paid off so far with Vegas five points back of first place in the Pacific Division and looking like its second act could rival its first.

”We have a couple guys signed long term, and it’s fun because it means that we have a core and we’re building something,” Marchessault said. ”You want to be part of a story as a hockey player, and it feels like we’re part of one here.”

The Golden Knights’ story was a fairy tale: A team that looked on paper like it would be among the worst in the league won its division and steamrolled to the final before losing to McPhee’s former team, the Washington Capitals, in five games. Marchessault said he felt in June like this team could be a legitimate threat for years to come.

McPhee’s job was to ensure that. The veteran executive who got to build the Golden Knights from scratch through a wildly successful expansion draft understood he had the benefit of not having to dig out from bad contracts. But he also shouldered the burden of drawing up a whole host of new ones after one season during which seemingly everyone overachieved.

”We did have a lot of work to do because most of the guys that we acquired were either free agents or were on one-year deals and their deals had matured and it was time to negotiate again,” McPhee said. ”And we just thought, we know what they are, we’re comfortable projecting what they will be in the future and we had the cap space, so why not use it now because cap space is like perishable inventory. If you don’t use it, it’s gone at the end of the year. We just wanted some cost certainty moving forward, so it would help us to plan for things better in the future.”

Fleury got $7 million a year, Schmidt, $5.95 million, Theodore, $5.2 million, Marchessault, $5 million and Tuch, $4.75 million. Fleury leads the NHL with 26 wins, Schmidt has played over 23 minutes a game since returning from suspension, Theodore leads Vegas defensemen with 21 points and Tuch and Marchessault are 1-2 on the team in scoring.

Beyond cost certainty, it was money smartly spent to keep morale up, raise expectations and get bang for owner Bill Foley’s buck.

”When you have a guy believe in you like that, sign you to that kind of a term, you don’t want to make him look bad and I think every night you want to go out and you want to play your best,” said Theodore, who is under contract through 2025. ”I think it’s been paying off for us and hopefully will in the future.”

Even though only wingers James Neal and David Perron and defenseman Luca Sbisa aren’t back from the core group that went to the Cup final, McPhee couldn’t stand pat and think success would repeat itself. He consciously added Stastny, Pacioretty and Nick Holden to replace the lost production and provide an influx of talent.

”When you’re a couple games away from winning, I think you’ve got to try and do whatever you can,” Schmidt said. ”You have to add something in order to beat the best teams.”

The way Pacioretty looks at it, McPhee wasn’t scanning the aisles. He was shopping off a specific list. They weren’t part of the playoff run – Stastny was on the Winnipeg Jets team that Vegas beat in the Western Conference final – but brought some more balance.

”They wanted guys like me and Stas to come in and play a little bit of a two-way game,” Pacioretty said. ”That’s how we want to help our team. We know that especially offensively that this team last year had guys who were relied upon every night to create. And we still want to be those guys coming in, but we also know that there’s areas on both sides of the puck that we can help this team.”

Injuries have hampered Pacioretty and Stastny so far, but they and the Golden Knights will really be judged in the playoffs. After falling three victories short of a championship, players feel like they have what it takes to win this time and for years to come.

”As our owner said at the beginning of the year, we just don’t want to be a winning team. We want to have a winning franchise,” Marchessault said. ”Last year we really felt like we have something special, and we have some unfinished business.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Vegas Golden Knights keep hot streak going

When you’re winning, it’s easy to laugh off Ryan Reaves‘ empty-net attempt putting your team down a man late in a game.

The Vegas Golden Knights finished Sunday in that state, as they won their sixth consecutive game by holding off the New Jersey Devils 3-2. Max Pacioretty generating two game-winning goals in a row makes that even sweeter.

This is about more than a six-game surge for Vegas, too.

With a 7-0-2 record in their last nine contests, they’ve extended an impressive point streak. Their overall record improves to 26-15-4 for 56 points. About the closest thing to bad news is that, while they have the same number as points as the West and Pacific-leading Flames, Calgary’s really the leader considering their two games in hand.

That’s a pretty small concern when you remember that there were very real worries about the Golden Knights following last season’s Cinderella run by missing the playoffs in their second campaign.

The lowest point of the season may have come against those Flames, as Vegas slipped to 9-12-1 after a 7-2 drubbing on Nov. 19. Such struggles inspired PHT to ponder serious goaltending slumps and generally lousy luck.

Maybe that 7-2 loss lit a fire under the Golden Knights.

Vegas rattled off a five-game winning streak after that embarrassing defeat, including a 2-0 win against Calgary on Nov. 23. They’re now 17-3-3 in their last 23 games; their 37 points since Nov. 21 tie the Tampa Bay Lightning for the most in the NHL during that span (though the world-beating Bolts got to 37 points in two fewer games).

Can they keep it up?

On one hand, the Golden Knights have some reason to believe that they can keep things going.

They’ve been able to get some nice balanced scoring. Alex Tuch continues to look like an impressive scorer, showing promise with Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. Even with Jonathan Marchessault suffering from ice-cold shooting luck, it seems like his trio with Reilly Smith and William Karlsson remain legit. Nate Schmidt‘s return from a suspension sure seems like a big deal for Vegas.

Vegas is also often impressive from a possession standpoint, with its speed and aggressiveness putting opponents on their heels.

But there remain some red flags, as noted earlier this season.

The Golden Knights continue to put a lot of pressure on Marc-Andre Fleury. “MAF” has really impressed lately, yet having the 34-year-old (who’s had some history of injury issues) play 20 of the last 23 games smells like a recipe for disaster.

As of this writing, Fleury is the only goalie who’s logged 2,000 minutes in 2018-19, with John Gibson (25) and Jacob Markstrom (28) trailing close behind. Fleury’s 38 games played tops all goalies.

Malcolm Subban won Sunday’s game against the Devils, holding strong as New Jersey fought to try to tie that contest. Maybe that performance will help him gain Gerard Gallant’s trust?

If not, that gamble could really go wrong for Vegas.

***

Overall, it’s heartening to see the Golden Knights make a profound argument that they’re not just some fluke, and they’re simply fun to watch. The 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs would be more fun with this speedy team and its silly pre-game antics.

The hotter Vegas stays, the better the odds are that they will stay in the playoffs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Rust continues dominance; Ehlers clutch once again

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Three stars

1. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins

On the morning of Dec. 12, Rust had just one goal to his name this season, one he scored back on Oct. 25.

As of Dec. 20, he now has nine goals. Yes, in the span of nine days, Rust has scored eight goals, including a hat trick back on the 12th, and goals in four straight games now dating back to Dec. 15.

Rust’s two goals were all the Pens needed in a 2-1 win against the Minnesota Wild. Rust is on quite the heater right now, with five goals and an assist in his current run and eight goals in his past six games.

2. Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets

Ehlers had scored earlier in the game, but it was his two third-period goals — a go-ahead goal to make it 4-3 and then the automatic empty-net goal to put the Jets up 5-3 — that cemented his second hat trick of the season.

Ehlers has been solid this season with 16 goals, including two hat tricks and six markers in his past five games.

He’s also been clutch. His goal last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Lightning tied the game 4-4 and forced overtime. His goals on Thursday were self-explanatory in their importance. He’s got three game-winners now this season.

3. Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

Sure, John Tavares and Auston Matthews each had a pair of goals — Matthews also had two assists for a four-point night — but someone has to be setting those up, right?

Well, in the case of those two, maybe not. Still, four assists in a game are nothing to scoff at and the above two get enough time in the spotlight.

The four apples matched a career-high for Rielly, who is well on his way to setting new career highs in assists and points. He has 11 goals (already a new career high) and 29 assists for 40 points this season.

He’s also on a three-game point streak.

Other notable performances:

  • Carter Hart won his second game in as many starts and is now 2-0-0 record with a 1.50 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. Pretty, pretty good.
  • Claude Giroux put up a career-high 10 shots on goal and one of them, a second-period strike, stood up as the game winner.
  • Jonathan Bernier stopped 39 shots in a 4-1 Red Wings win against the Hurricanes
  • Cam Atkinson scored a ridiculous penalty shot (watch it below) to help the Blue Jackets past the Devils. It was his 20th goal of the season.
  • David Pastrnak had a goal and two assists in Boston’s 3-1 win against the Ducks.
  • Patrick Kane (two goals, one assist) and Alex DeBrincat (one goal, two assists) help the Blackhawks to their third win in their past five games.
  • Nate Schmidt had a goal and two assists to help Golden Knights down the Islanders 4-2
  • Jets captain Blake Wheeler had three assists and now has 42, tying Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen for the NHL lead.

Highlights of the night

This doesn’t need an introduction:

Oh my goodness is right.

The old strip and score:

Defying geometry:

Factoids

Scores

Bruins 3, Ducks 1

Maple Leafs 6, Panthers 1

Flyers 2, Predators 1

Penguins 2, Wild 1

Blue Jackets 2, Devils 1

Red Wings 4, Hurricanes 1

Blackhawks 5, Stars 2

Lightning 5, Flames 4 (SO)

Canadiens 2, Coyotes 1

Canucks 5, Blues 1

Golden Knights 4, Islanders 2

Jets 5, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Here’s why Golden Knights should make playoffs

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If you want to wade through various fancy stats, you’ll find a lot of compelling reasons to argue that the Vegas Golden Knights have a bright future. They’re dominating puck possession most nights, so if they merely start getting some of last season’s bounces, things should be looking up.

But, honestly, the most promising factor might be something really simple.

Through 29 games in 2018-19, the Golden Knights have played 17 games on the road, and only 12 at home. That disparity will become more stark in the next couple weeks, as five of their next seven games will be on the road (pushing it to 22 road vs. 14 home contests).

Having a warchest of home games would be noteworthy for most teams in the modern NHL, where the difference between winning and losing can sometimes be agonizingly small. It’s even more important for the Golden Knights because they’re still deadly in Vegas, baby. They’re currently 8-3-1 at home, and the Vegas trip seems to linger beyond those specific games:

As a reminder, the Golden Knights were 29-10-2 in Vegas last season, so the Golden Knights could really sock away points in their 29 remaining home games in 2018-19.

It’s actually sneaky-promising, then, that the Golden Knights aren’t too far from a playoff spot. With 31 points in 29 games, they’re only one point out of the West’s final wild card spot, and Vegas merely trails San Jose by two points for the Pacific’s third seed.

That’s not to say that the Golden Knights are a slam-dunk to make it somewhere into the West’s top eight, mind you, but various projections love or at least really like Vegas’ odds.

Getting more specific, the Golden Knights could see an uptick from: improved puck luck, stabilizing goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury, Max Pacioretty getting things together, Paul Stastny returning from injury, and Nate Schmidt‘s suspension being over.

In my opinion, additional home teams might just provide the Golden Knights that extra nudge they need to go two-for-two when it comes to making the playoffs.

Celebrate the Golden Knights’ magical first season with NBC Sports:

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

The Buzzer: Hornqvist makes history; Flames score nine

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Three stars

1. Patric Hornqvist, Pittsburgh Penguins

He scored the Pittsburgh Penguins’ fastest-ever hat trick on hat night.

Not bad from the 230th and final player drafted in the 2005 NHL Draft.

Hornqvist’s goals came pretty much the same way they always do: by working hard. He cleaned up some trash in front of the net, had a knuckle puck fool a goalie and then saw his shot on the hat trick goal re-direct off a defenseman. Hornqvist added an assist for the four-point night.

2. Sean Monahan & Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

Look, I have to cheat here. Tuesday was a wild night and the wildest game came in Calgary (highlights here), where the Flames won 9-6 against the Columbus Blue Jackets. That’s right, 15 goals, and Monahan and Gaudreau each had four-point nights to help propel the Flames past their Blue Jackets.

Both Monahan and Gaudreau scored twice and added two helpers in the game. Matthew Tkachuk had a goal and two assists. Mark Giordano had three helpers.

3. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers 

Luongo has dealt with a couple injuries now this year and still comes back with a vengeance each time.

Lu returned from a five-game hiatus due to a knee injury and stopped 33 shots for his 77th career shutout (and first of the season) in a 5-0 win against the Boston Bruins.

Luongo returned after a month off in early November and steered the Panthers to a win against the Winnipeg Jets in Finland. He plays well in these games coming off a layoff, but the Panthers need him to stay healthy from here on out. Tuesday was a good example as to why.

Other notable performances:

  • Cam Atkinson extended his point streak to 11 games with a hat trick of his own. On any normal night in the NHL, Atkinson would be among the three stars. Tuesday wasn’t a normal night.
  • Ditto for Frans Nielsen, who scored a natural hatty. [Video]
  • Auston Matthews scored an incredible goal in overtime to help the Toronto Maple Leafs past the Buffalo Sabres by a 4-3 margin. Matthews scored earlier in the game and added an assist. He’s got 15 goals in 14 games this season and five goals and two assists in three games since returning from injury.
  • Jack Eichel scored twice, bringing the Sabres from 2-1 down to a 3-2 lead in the third period.
  • Eddie Pasquale, 28, got his first win in his NHL debut. It wasn’t pretty, but he turned aside 19 of 24 shots in through 65 minutes and two of three Red Wings shooters in the shootout. [Highlights]
  • Max Domi had two goals and an assist as the Montreal Canadiens downed the Ottawa Senators 5-2.
  • Sticking in Tampa, Mathieu Joseph had two goals and an assist in the Lightning win.
  • Mike Hoffman had two goals for the Panthers. Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists.
  • Evgeni Malkin had a goal and an assist. [Highlights]
  • Adin Hill keeps winning. He’s now 4-0-0 in five games played this season after making 25 saves.
  • Nate Schmidt scored twice and added an assist in a 5-3 win over his former team in the Washington Capitals.

Highlights of the night

Hornqvist makes history:

Auston Matthews doing the impossible:

Matheson goes coast-to-coast:

One-handed:

Factoids

Scores

Panthers 5, Bruins 0

Jets 3, Islanders 1

Penguins 6, Avalanche 3

Flames 9, Blue Jackets 6

Maple Leafs 4, Sabres 3 (OT)

Canadiens 5, Senators 2

Lightning 6, Red Wings 5 (SO)

Wild 3, Canucks 2

Golden Knights 5, Capitals 3

Coyotes 2, Kings 1


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck