A challenging, whirlwind 2021-22 season has added another chapter, with the suddenly surging Vegas Golden Knights riding a five-game win streak as they make a renewed playoff push. The team’s March 3 3-2 overtime win in Vancouver matched their season-best win streak and moved them, at least for the time being, into sole possession of the second and final wild card spot in the Western Conference.
After everything that’s taken place this season, from the Jack Eichel blockbuster to the incessant injuries to the never-ending cap woes, these final 11 games still have the chance to salvage the Golden Knights’ campaign or end in crushing disappointment. For now, Vegas is winning at a time when seemingly every other Western playoff hopeful is too, preventing the club from gaining appreciable ground.
With so much riding on the home stretch with under four weeks of the regular season remaining, let’s dive into a wild month of April for the Golden Knights and take a look at where things stand as they chase a wild card or, perhaps, a Pacific Division playoff spot.
Golden Knights’ Upcoming Schedule
Having just five of the team’s final 11 games come on home ice is less than ideal, particularly given a grueling stretch of travel that will take them through Western Canada and close on a three-games-in-four-days jaunt through Dallas, Chicago and St. Louis. But T-Mobile Arena hasn’t been the safe haven for the Golden Knights that is has in past seasons (20-13-3 mark, compared to 21-5-2 last season) and the relatively soft nature of the schedule should make up for a lack of home cooking.
Of these final 11 games, only four will come against teams currently in playoff positions. Opportunity also knocks in two forthcoming games against the Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars, critical showdowns against teams currently vying for the same respective divisional and wild card spots that Vegas is chasing. The remaining slate also features games against the slumping Vancouver Canucks and Chicago Blackhawks and the basement-dwelling Arizona Coyotes and New Jersey Devils.
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Still, it won’t be easy. While the Golden Knights are currently one point ahead of the Stars for the second and final wild card spot, Dallas holds three games in hand. Their showdown on April 26 — the third-to-last game for each team — could loom very large. Vegas’ best chance to reach the postseason may reside in the Pacific Division, where the Oilers are three points up with a game in hand and the Los Angeles Kings are four points up but have played one additional game.
Martinez, Lehner… Who’s Next?
Some help is certainly better than no help at all, so while Vegas still isn’t close to icing a full, healthy roster, help from the ranks of the injured is coming. Alec Martinez has provided a nice boost since returning from a lengthy absence due to a facial laceration back in November, while Robin Lehner’s 26-save performance in his first game in nearly a month (lower-body injury) on Sunday night offered encouragement.
Lehner’s return brings at least some clarity between the pipes, where Logan Thompson has performed admirably as the interim No. 1. Still, it was always going to be a lot to ask the 25-year-old, who is now a veteran of 13 NHL games, to provide nightly stability during the club’s most important games of the season. Now, Thompson gets to stick around in a more suitable backup role, as Laurent Brossoit remains out indefinitely with his own mysterious ailment (from ‘Golden Knights lose goaltender for indefinite period,’ Las Vegas Review-Journal. 3/24/22).
Martinez’s return means that Nicolas Hague is the only sidelined regular on the blue line, but injury issues impacting the forward corps don’t seem any clearer at the moment, both based on injury timeline and cap considerations. If Mark Stone, for instance, is ready to come back soon (the Vegas organization isn’t keen to divulge injury updates), the club will need to navigate some tricky cap implications (from ‘How could the Golden Knights create cap space to activate Mark Stone from LTIR? Here are 3 scenarios,’ The Athletic. March 31, 2022).
Otherwise, little is expected to change in the immediate future, especially after Max Pacioretty suffered a setback in his own recovery last week. Reilly Smith’s move to long-term injured reserve (LTIR) to make room for Martinez means the winger can’t return until mid-April at the earliest and there is no further clarity on the likes of William Carrier and Nolan Patrick.
All that means we can’t expect much change to the current top-six forward corps, at least not yet. Evgenii Dadonov will likely remain on the top line for now alongside Eichel and Chandler Stephenson, while Michael Amadio is expected to stay lined up with Vegas originals William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault.
Dadonov, Theodore, Marchessault Holding Down the Fort
Dadonov has been the biggest recent story, having found new life in light of a revoked trade attempt and even producing a storybook overtime winner against the Blackhawks. But it is a balanced attack that has sparked the Golden Knights’ recent run, with contributions coming from some lineup staples and some more unexpected sources.
Following his own OT winner on Sunday, Shea Theodore now has goals in three consecutive games and a four-game point streak. Apart from Alex Pietrangelo, few have shown Theodore’s durability, averaging over 23 minutes per night while playing in 67 of the club’s 71 games. Fellow Vegas original Marchessault also has scored in each of the past three games and has three goals and seven assists during the win streak.
Further down the depth chart, Amadio has responded to a bump up in the lineup, scoring three of his eight goals on the season over the last seven games. Head coach Pete DeBoer, meanwhile, continues to show faith in defenseman Ben Hutton, who is a plus-7 on the season and remains a fixture among the top-six, at least until Hague is ready to return. It’s no coincidence that Amadio and Hutton have both signed contract extensions for beyond this season.
Securing a playoff spot could mean a whole new round of fireworks, from a possible first round showdown with the Colorado Avalanche to the returns of Stone and Smith from LTIR that would surely elicit a wave of “Vegas is manipulating the salary cap” sentiment. But before that can happen, the Golden Knights remain more likely than not to miss the postseason, meaning that urgency remains and even their recent win streak isn’t enough.