In the late stages of their strange 2021-22 NHL campaign, good luck getting a handle on the Vegas Golden Knights right now. Just as a string of seven losses in nine March games left them firmly outside of the playoff picture and looking hopeless, they reeled off five straight wins at a time when chief playoff rivals like the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings were back-pedalling. Then, after two recent stumbles against the Vancouver Canucks everything is back in flux.
With seven games remaining, the Golden Knights still have an achievable path to playoff entry through either one of the three automatic Pacific Division spots or one of the two Western Conference wild-card slots. Of course, fighting for your playoff lives at this time of year is never easy and will require a continuation of their recent stretch of hot play, with some significant (and much-needed) injury returns serving as a welcome bonus.
Vegas can’t control what rival teams like Dallas and Los Angeles do down the stretch, so they can only really turn their focus inward. From continuing to benefit from the contributions of those stepping up in the absence of injured players to the significance of Mark Stone’s return, there are plenty of x-factors that could shape things down the stretch for a club hoping to avoid missing the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
In order to get Stone out of long-term injury relief and back into the lineup while remaining cap compliant, the Golden Knights had to subsequently move William Carrier (leg), Nolan Patrick (undisclosed) and Laurent Brossoit (undisclosed) into long-term injury reserve (LTIR). The cap gymnastics will prove well worth it, so long as the Vegas captain can provide an injection of leadership, two-way play and re-develop the innate chemistry he’s enjoyed with Max Pacioretty in the past.
Stone has yet to hit the scoresheet over his first two games back from a two-month absence, amassing a minus-1 along the way. The lack of immediate production is hardly surprising, but time isn’t on the side of the Golden Knights and they may need to place unfair expectations on a player who has just 29 games under his belt on the season.
How much of a difference-maker is it to have Robin Lehner back between the pipes? Considering that the Swede has already recorded more wins over four games since returning from an upper-body injury (two) than currently injured back-up Laurent Brossoit could muster over his final eight games in the Vegas crease pre-injury (from ‘Golden Knights goalie returns in time for playoff push,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal. 4/05/22).
For the moment, Lehner is again away from the team, this time to tend to a private family matter. Provided he’s back soon, there’s tremendous value in the dose of stability he offers in net for a team previously left to rely on the untested Logan Thompson. While Thompson has performed admirably given the circumstances, Lehner brings a layer of trust and solidarity to the role that the 25-year-old simply doesn’t have the pedigree or NHL experience to offer.
Though it was at odds with his buzz-worthy arrival as a prized free agent, Alex Pietrangelo’s identity on this team was always expected to be something of a steady-but-anonymous blue line anchor and minutes swallower. That was the role he played over a successful, lengthy stint with the St. Louis Blues and that Golden Knights general manager (GM) Kelly McCrimmon had hoped to reel in during the summer of 2020. Following a bumpy, injury-marred debut season, it’s now clear Pietrangelo offers exactly what the Golden Knights had hoped for when they signed him.
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In that sense, this has been the prototypical Pietrangelo season. It hasn’t been flashy, but he’s been out there every night, logging nearly 25 minutes (15th league-wide) and tallying 13 goals and 41 points. He and defensive partner Shea Theodore are currently playing some of their best hockey (11 goals and nine assists combined since mid-March) amidst the season’s most important games.
Another recent injury returnee, Pacioretty scored early in his first game back from an undisclosed ailment on April 9. Interestingly, it was the first sign that head coach Pete DeBoer would resist the temptation to return Pacioretty and Stone to the lineup as part of a superstar top line with Jack Eichel. Instead, the familiar wing duo is back to flanking Chandler Stephenson while Eichel continues to center Evgenii Dadonov and Nicolas Roy.
In that sense, Pacioretty fills the critical role of balancing out the Golden Knights’ top-six forward corps. He and Stone may still be getting their timing back, but William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault have thrived as part of the third line alongside Michael Amadio. Now, Vegas boasts three bona fide scoring lines that, even with Reilly Smith still sidelined, can rival just about anyone.
The Golden Knights are well aware of the challenge ahead of them. In the Pacific, they trail the sliding Kings by one point with a game in hand. Playoff entry via the wild card route will still require chasing down the Stars or Nashville Predators, who are each two points up on them with a game in hand. Contributions will assuredly come from some unexpected sources, but it all starts at the top and having Stone, Lehner, Pietrangelo and Pacioretty healthy and contributing would go a long way to making the playoffs for a fifth-straight season.
I may be a Leafs fan at heart (I’ve witnessed their highs and lows first-hand as a Scotiabank Arena employee), but I’m also a veteran freelance sportswriter who loves a good story. And there’s been no better story in hockey over the past few years than the Vegas Golden Knights. I’m excited to be covering the NHL again on the Golden Knights’ beat.