Every game is weighed evenly throughout an 82-game NHL schedule, but we’d be kidding ourselves to suggest that they all feel equally important. We’re at a time of year where the Vegas Golden Knights are typically accustomed to having a playoff spot locked up and be jostling for positioning and eyeing potential first-round opponents. Those games carry high stakes, but not as big as the must-win contests that the club has in front of them.
But even in light of a desperation 4-3 overtime win over the Washington Capitals last night, the Golden Knights have found themselves leaving costly points on the table while managing a middling 2-2-1 record over their past five games. Given the expectations placed upon Vegas’ expensive, star-laden roster and the fact that the club is finally getting (mostly) healthy, failure to take full advantage of this stretch is an unmitigated disaster, leaving any postseason hopes tenuous at best.
Wednesday night’s gutty win might have granted the Golden Knights’ playoff hopes a stay of execution, but in a race that will now come down to the wire, it’s hard not to look back at some of the defeats that have defined the shaky state they currently find themselves in. Here’s a ranking of the Golden Knights’ five toughest losses of the year:
5. Lose 4-3 to the Tampa Bay Lightning (Dec. 21)
Winners of five in a row and eight of their previous nine while boasting a 20-11-0 record, Vegas was feeling pretty good about welcoming the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning to T-Mobile Arena just before the holiday break. In this battle of Cup contenders, the Golden Knights were missing Robin Lehner, Alex Pietrangelo and Evgenii Dadonov (Mark Stone left the game after the first period), but Tampa was without Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and even head coach Jon Cooper.
The Golden Knights looked motivated, jumping out to a 3-1 lead. But even a 41-19 advantage in shots ultimately didn’t help, as the Lightning responded with three goals, including one from former Knight Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, to clinch a come-from-behind win. In the end, Vegas backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit proved no match for Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
4. Lose 5-1 to the Vancouver Canucks (Apr. 6)
Momentum is everything in hockey, which is at least partially why the Golden Knights’ 5-1 home loss to the Vancouver Canucks looms so large. Prior to that home contest, where Vegas simply disappeared after Jack Eichel opened the scoring, the Canucks had lost three straight (including an overtime defeat to those same Knights in Vancouver) and the Golden Knights had won five in a row.
Fast forward beyond that Apr. 6 blowout win and the Canucks continue to ride high, having suffered only one defeat in the six games since. On the other hand of the momentum coin, Vegas sports just a 3-2-1 record following the loss, including a subsequent overtime loss in their third Vancouver game in just nine days. Suddenly, the two teams are neck-and-neck as they make a final desperation push for the last spot in the Pacific Division.
3. Lose 3-1 to the Buffalo Sabres (March 10)
For as good as it felt for Buffalo Sabres fans to get one over on Eichel during his first game back in the city after a bitter split, it was an equally tough loss to take for a Golden Knights team hoping to win one for their new teammate. While Eichel was a minus-1 with no points in just under 18 minutes in front of a hostile crowd at the KeyBank Center, most of Buffalo’s damage was done by the key players who went the other way, with Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs each notching a goal.
In the end, Eichel couldn’t leave without getting in one last shot. When asked about the Sabres fans’ reaction to him during a post-game media scrum, a clearly still-rattled Eichel mockingly noted that “it only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.” Not exactly taking the high road.
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2. Lose 5-3 to the Pittsburgh Penguins (Jan. 17)
It’s tough to pinpoint exactly when the wheels started coming off on this Vegas season, but you could argue that this home loss to Pittsburgh might have got things going. While there’s no shame in losing to the perennially postseason-bound Pens, the Golden Knights emerged from a dominant first period with a 3-0 lead. Then, it all fell apart.
Jason Zucker scored twice in his return from a month-long absence due to a lower-body injury and Jake Guentzel potted the eventual game-winner, as the Penguins scored five unanswered goals in front of a stunned T-Mobile Arena.
1. Lose 3-2 to the New Jersey Devils (Apr. 18)
Yikes. Vegas knew the stakes heading into their home game against the New Jersey Devils this past Monday and needed to play accordingly. Instead, they fell to a lottery team that had won just two of their previous nine games, was without leading goal scorer Jack Hughes and had handed goaltending duties to 34-year-old journeyman Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond, who orchestrated a sparkling 42-save performance.
The Golden Knights had the chance to take advantage of a weak opponent at home and creep within one point of the Los Angeles Kings for the third and final Pacific Division playoff slot. Instead, they allowed the Canucks to make up ground while they wasted a crucial opportunity. What a story it would be if the season of the $92 million Knights is undone by Hammond, who had gone more than six years between NHL regular-season wins before an unlikely comeback in February.
Every team takes their fair share of hits over a full season. Heck, the Colorado Avalanche just lost to a Seattle Kraken team with 58 fewer points on the season. Those losses, however, become magnified when they represent the difference between qualifying for the postseason and, for the first time ever, being completely left out. The Golden Knights would never admit it, but it’s hard to imagine some of those defeats aren’t lingering in their heads right about now.
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.