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Golden Knights looking like a major Stanley Cup threat

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Let’s talk about the Vegas Golden Knights for a bit, because they are starting to emerge as one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the Western Conference.

They enter Monday’s game in Edmonton in first-place in the Pacific Division and are one of the league’s hottest teams having won 10 of their past 12 games, while also owning a 14-5-2 record since the hiring of new coach Peter DeBoer.

It’s not just the recent results that make them such a threat right now in the West. It’s the fact they are starting to systematically dominate teams. It is the perfect storm of the right results and the right process.

So what’s happening in Vegas that is making them such a threat?

They have tightened things up defensively

Just to make it clear at the start: I was very critical of their decision to fire coach Gerard Gallant earlier this season and replace him with Peter DeBoer. Not because DeBoer isn’t a good coach (He is, as is Gallant), but because the problems in Vegas at the time seemed to be more of a goaltending issue than anything relating to coaching.

But fair is fair to DeBoer, and the Golden Knights have definitely improved their overall performance defensively.

The table below shows some of their 5-on-5 defensive metrics under the two coaches, including shot attempts against, shot attempt differential, expected goals against, goals against, and save percentage.

The goaltending still hasn’t been where they want it to be, and while they were still a top-10 team in some key defensive metrics under Gallant, they have been quite literally the league’s best under DeBoer.

The big change is in dramatic decrease in total shot attempts against, as well as the way they have cut down on the scoring chances and expected goals against. Even though the goaltending performance has remained similar, the defensive play in front of them has definitely improved.

The type of performance we are seeing from the right now is one that is usually reserved for Stanley Cup teams.

Robin Lehner gives them an intriguing option

Speaking of the goaltending situation, it’s going to be interesting to see how this situation unfolds down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been the face of the franchise from the moment he was acquired in the expansion draft, and overall he’s been a rock for them in net. But the fact of the matter is that his overall performance has regressed this season, and outside of a handful of random games in February it hasn’t really consistently improved.

But with Robin Lehner now in the mix the Golden Knights have a very intriguing Plan B in place.

One of their biggest weaknesses the past two years has been the lack of a quality backup behind Fleury. It forced Fleury to take on a huge workload (not great for a goalie in his mid-30s) and had no safety net in case of an injury or poor play.

They not only have a great Plan B, their Plan B also happens to be one of the league’s best goalies the past two years, and he is 3-0 with a .940 save percentage since joining the Golden Knights at the trade deadline.

Forget the star power and reputations, there is no reason why that job should not be up for debate and an open competition down the stretch. If one of them emerges and solidifies that spot, it would take this team to an entirely different level.

Max Pacioretty has been amazing, and Mark Stone will be back

The Golden Knights may not have a true superstar in their lineup, but their top-end talent is legit. Leading the way is Pacioretty (he got a mention in this week’s MVP Power Rankings) who is having one of the best seasons of his career, driving play like a champion and scoring at close to a 40-goal pace.

As a team, they have six forwards scoring at a 20-goal pace over 82 games, while they have also played the past six games (4-2-0 record) without perhaps their best overall forward, Mark Stone.

They should have a very manageable playoff path

This might be one of the biggest things working in their favor.

There are a ton of factors that go into winning in the playoffs, from playing well, to health, to goaltending, to luck, to simply getting the right matchups.

Obviously nothing is a guarantee, but whether the Golden Knights finish first or second in the Pacific Division they should have an extremely manageable path through at least the first two rounds. They would almost certainly be favorites against any team they play in Rounds 1 and 2, while there remains a pretty significant gap between the top contenders in the Western Conference and the next tier of contenders.

Look at it this way: As of publication on Monday afternoon, only one of their potential playoff matchups in Rounds 1 or 2 (Edmonton) of the playoffs ranks higher than 15th in the league in points percentage, while several of their potential early matchups (Calgary, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Arizona, Nashville) are all in the 18-23 range.

It is entirely possible that they would not have to play a top-15 NHL team in the playoffs until a potential Western Conference Final matchup.

They still have to play the games and they still have actually win once they get there, but the way things are shaping up right now with their overall play and potential postseason path the Golden Knights should be one of the top teams to watch for coming out of the Western Conference.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Mark Stone out week-to-week for streaking Golden Knights

Mark Stone out week-to-week for Golden Knights
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The Golden Knights announced that star winger Mark Stone is out week-to-week with a lower-body injury.

With a bit more than a month remaining in the regular season, losing Stone “week-to-week” sounds both scary and vague. Golden Knights Peter DeBoer notes that the team hopes Stone can return before the end of the regular season.

No doubt about it, this is a big loss. Stone generated 21 goals and 63 points so far in 65 games, continuing to draw more deserved attention as a Selke-worthy forward. Even so, you could argue that people still aren’t fully aware of how dominant Stone can be.

This ranks as a significant blow to the Golden Knights, and a frustrating one at that.

It’s been a turbulent season for Vegas, the toughest one in what’s somehow just the third campaign in the franchise’s existence. The Golden Knights are currently red-hot with an eight-game winning streak, seemingly finally putting everything together. And now they lost their two-way star.

Golden Knights hope to hold onto Pacific with Stone out week-to-week

To be clear, the Golden Knights still stand in a good position to win the up-and-down Pacific Division.

Yes, it could be worse, especially if Stone being out week-to-week translates to him still having time to get a few regular-season games in before the playoffs.

There’s also something to be said that the Golden Knights will be forced to find answers beyond Stone. Maybe they’ll stumble into different combinations that could work if matchups get dicey during the playoffs? Perhaps losing a key player will push the Golden Knights to see how much they can lean on Robin Lehner?

Overall, it’s clear this is very bad for the Golden Knights, who have spent big to contend in 2019-20.

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.

Robin Lehner to make Golden Knights debut; Mark Stone injured

Golden Knights
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The Vegas Golden Knights have been one of the league’s hottest teams over the past month and will be looking to extend their current winning streak to eight games on Friday night when they host the Buffalo Sabres.

Coach Pete DeBoer had some significant lineup news ahead of the game on Friday afternoon, including a potentially significant injury.

First, is the news that big trade deadline acquisition Robin Lehner will be making his first start in goal for the team. The Golden Knights acquired Lehner from the Chicago Blackhawks just ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Monday for a draft pick and a prospect. Lehner has been one of the league’s best goalies for the past two years and alongside Marc-Andre Fleury should give them one of the league’s best goaltending duos.

The far more serious news, though, was the announcement that forward Mark Stone will not play on Friday due to a lower-body injury.

DeBoer had no immediate information on how long Stone could be out, only to say that he is still being evaluated.

When asked if it could potentially be a long-term injury DeBoer said “There’s always fear. We don’t know, but we’ll see,” via NHL.com.

Stone is one of the league’s best all-around forwards and has not only been a point-per-game player for the past three seasons, he is also one of the best defensive forwards in the league. He finished the 2018-19 season as the top runner-up for the Selke Trophy, something that has become almost unheard of for a winger.

The Golden Knights enter Friday’s game in first place in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks.

Related: Blackhawks trade Robin Lehner to Golden Knights

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

The Buzzer: Stone ties career high; Vasilevskiy keeps point streak alive

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Three Stars

1) Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights

He opened the game with two goals and then added three assists in the Golden Knights’ 7-2 win. Stone tied a career high with five points, a feat he previously recorded twice with the Ottawa Senators. Stone lit the lamp early in the first period when he banged home a loose puck in front, but his prettiest goal of the game came early in the second period. No. 61 danced around Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson and then lifted a shot over the glove of Sergei Bobrovsky. His three assists were also impressive as the Golden Knights ended a season-long eight-game road trip.

2) Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings

It can’t get much worse in Detroit this season. However, Larkin has given Red Wings fans a reason to believe they have a foundational building block for the future. No. 71 scored twice including a neat breakaway deke with less than one second remaining in the opening period as Detroit snapped a nine-game losing streak with a 4-3 shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres. Larkin also added a shootout tally after Detroit surrendered the game-tying goal in the final minute.

3) Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning

The Russian netminder improved to 15-0-2 in his last 17 starts and set a Lightning record for longest point streak by a goalie in the 4-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Vasilevskiy made 29 saves as he broke Nikolai Khabibulin’s record that stood since April of 2003. He also picked up his fourth assist of the season when Nikita Kucherov tallied an empty-net goal in the final minute. After a slow start to the season, the Bolts have regained their form as an elite team in the Eastern Conference.

Other notable performances

  • Marc-André Fleury claimed sole possession of fifth place on the NHL all-time wins list with his 460th victory, passing Henrik Lundqvist.
  • Kieffer Bellows scored twice in his second career NHL game in the New York Islanders’ 5-3 win against the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Cale Makar has made the transition to the NHL look too easy as he picked up his 39th and 40th point of the season.
  • Mackenzie Blackwood made 46 saves in his second career shutout as the New Jersey Devils rolled past the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-0.
  • Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho each had two goals and an assist as the Hurricanes topped the Coyotes, 5-3.
  • Steven Stamkos recorded his 25th of the season and has scored seven goals in the previous six games.
  • Jeff Petry sniped the overtime winner as the Montreal Canadiens collected their fourth win in the past five games.

Highlights of the Night

Connor McDavid can fly on the ice but his speed when he has possession of the puck makes him the most dangerous player in the NHL.

Vincent Trocheck showed great vision when he fired a pass from the top of the crease on one knee to set up Mike Hoffman late in the first period.

Kieffer Bellows scored his first NHL goal after Anthony Beauvillier delivered a pretty touch pass to set up the rookie forward. In two career NHL games, Bellows has a two-game point streak.

Damon Severson went coast to coast and wired a wrist shot off the post and in to give the Devils a two-goal advantage early in the second period

Ryan Dzingel sets up in Wayne Gretzky’s office and finds Jaccob Slavin darting toward the high slot.

Nikita Kucherov is known for his offense, but made a strong play in the defensive zone which led to a Stamkos goal. The Russian hustled back to intercept a cross-ice pass from Sidney Crosby, then corralled the loose puck to set up the Lightning’s offensive attack.

Bloopers of the Night

Jacob Markstrom has to make a smarter play with the puck in this situation.

Panthers defenseman Riley Stillman over skated the puck, then struggled to find it and the Golden Knights capitalized.

Stat of the Night

Injury News

  • Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh did not return after blocking a shot in the second period against the Penguins.
  • Penguins defenseman John Marino took a puck to the face but early reports are that it was not as bad as it looked.

Scores

New York Islanders 5, Los Angeles Kings 3

Detroit Red Wings 4, Buffalo Sabres 3 (SO)

Montreal Canadiens 3, Anaheim Ducks 2 (OT)

Tampa Bay Lightning 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 2

Vegas Golden Knights 7, Florida Panthers 2

New Jersey Devils 5, Philadelphia Flyers 0

Colorado Avalanche 4, Ottawa Senators 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, St. Louis Blues 2

Minnesota Wild 4, Vancouver Canucks 2

Nashville Predators 3, Calgary Flames 2

Carolina Hurricanes 5, Arizona Coyotes 3

San Jose Sharks 6, Edmonton Oilers 3


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

The Buzzer: Golden Knights win DeBoer’s debut; Hats off to Ovechkin

Three Stars

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals. Another milestone for the greatest goal scorer to ever play in the NHL. He recorded his 25th career hat trick on Thursday night and reached the 30-goal mark for the 15th consecutive season to start his career, a feat accomplished only by him and Mike Gartner. Read more about it here.

2. David Rittich, Calgary Flames. Huge night for the All-Star goalie as he stopped 35 shots during regulation and overtime and all three shots he faced in a shootout to help lift the Flames to a 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Flames have now won six of their past seven games. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are now tied for first place in the Pacific Division.

3. Mark Stone, Vegas Golden Knights. The Golden Knights won Peter DeBoer’s coaching debut on Thursday night, 4-2, over the Ottawa Senators thanks to a big game from Stone. He scored a goal and recorded an assist in his first game back in Ottawa as a visiting player. Stone played the first six-and-a-half years of his career with the Senators and was one of the team’s best players during his time there. He was a key part of their 2016-17 run to the Eastern Conference Final and became one of the league’s best two-way players. The Senators traded him to Vegas at the trade deadline a year ago. He received a lengthy ovation from the Ottawa crowd on Thursday.

Other notable performances from Thursday

  • Jaroslav Halak gave up a goal to Sidney Crosby just 24 seconds into the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday, then slammed the door shut the right of the night to help the Boston Bruins to a 4-1 win.
  • John Tortorella recorded his 200th win as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in their 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It is a huge win for the Blue Jackets and a costly game for the Hurricanes as defenseman Dougie Hamilton exited the game with a nasty looking leg injury. Read about it here.
  • The Minnesota Wild snapped their four-game losing streak with an impressive win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Read about it here.
  • Sam Montembeault replaced an injured Chris Driedger in the Florida Panthers’ net and helped them get a big win over the Los Angeles Kings.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk continued his great play with the Montreal Canadiens by scoring two goals in a 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers. He now has three goals and seven total points in seven games since joining the Canadiens.
  • Rasmus Dahlin scored his third goal of the season to help the Buffalo Sabres beat the Dallas Stars.
  • John Gibson stopped 33 shots for the Anaheim Ducks as they hand the Nashville Predators their seventh defeat in their past 10 games.
  • Philipp Grubauer stops all 27 shots he faces in a shutout win for the Colorado Avalanche over the San Jose Sharks.
  • Jake Virtanen avoids a suspension earlier in the day and then scores the game-winning goal for the Vancouver Canucks in a big win over the Arizona Coyotes.

Highlights of the Night

This might have been Rittich’s biggest and best save of the night.

Cam Atkinson wasted no time making an impact in his return to the Blue Jackets’ lineup with this assist early in the first period.

Chris Kreider scores a game-winning power play with 30 seconds to play in regulation to help give the New York Rangers a 3-2 win over the New York Islanders.

Blooper of the Night

After whiffing on a shootout attempt earlier this week, Brad Marchand had some more problems on a breakaway.

Auston Matthews tried the lacrosse move and it did not work.

Factoids

  • Cale Makar scored his 10th goal of the season for the Colorado Avalanche, tying him for the most in franchise history for a rookie defenseman. [NHL PR]
  • Patrice Bergeron reached the 20-goal mark for the 11th time in his career, the second most in Bruins franchise history behind only John Buyck. [NHL PR]
  • Capitals goalie Ilya Samsonov is the 10th rookie goalie to ever win nine consecutive decisions during the regular season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Boston Bruins 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1
Calgary Flames 2, Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (SO)
Florida Panthers 4, Los Angeles Kings 3
New York Rangers 3, New York Islanders 2
Montreal Canadiens 4, Philadelphia Flyers 1
Washington Capitals 5, New Jersey Devils 2
Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Carolina Hurricanes 2
Vegas Golden Knights 4, Ottawa Senators 2
Anaheim Ducks 4, Nashville Predators 2
Minnesota Wild 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 2
Buffalo Sabres 4, Dallas Stars 1
Colorado Avalanche 4, San Jose Sharks 0
Vancouver Canucks 3, Arizona Coyotes 1

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.