Game 1 of the Vegas Golden Knights first-round series against the Minnesota Wild made two things abundantly clear: any hopes of an easy path to the second round for Vegas are out the window, and they aren’t getting very far without a healthy Max Pacioretty.
Pacioretty hasn’t suited up since May 1st, so his absence for the Golden Knights’ playoff opener wasn’t entirely surprising. Still, the fact that the club’s second-leading scorer missed his seventh straight game loomed large over a 1-0 overtime loss that saw many lineup regulars return.
Among an injury-plagued Vegas roster, Tomas Nosek, Ryan Reaves, Alec Martinez and Alex Tuch were all healthy and ready to go for what was a grinding, physical Game 1. Nowhere to be found, however, was Pacioretty, whose mysterious status over the past two weeks hasn’t changed from being “day-to-day” with an “undisclosed” injury. Even more worrisome, it remains unclear whether the 32-year-old has even skated on his own since getting hurt. (from “Injuries threaten to derail Golden Knights’ pursuit of Cup,” David Schoen, Las Vegas Review-Journal, 05/14/21)
March 8th of this year marked the 10-year anniversary of the vicious hit by then-Boston Bruin Zdeno Chara on Pacioretty, then a member of the Montreal Canadiens, that left him with a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra. We, of course, have no idea if head trauma is playing a role in the left winger’s absence, but it’s hard not to think back on the veteran’s checkered injury past amidst so much uncertainty.
Big Hole in the Lineup
With all due respect to the aforementioned Game 1 returnees, none provided the immediate impact on the scoresheet that a healthy Pacioretty would have potentially been able to offer. In his place, Nosek lined up on the top line alongside Mark Stone, with Chandler Stephenson in the middle. As Jesse Granger of The Athletic noted on Twitter, Stone was essentially lined up with two guys who have spent most of their career as fourth-liners.
That’s not a knock on Nosek or Stephenson so much as a point about how important Pacioretty’s offensive game is to the Golden Knights. Before being sidelined, the Connecticut native had recorded points in nine of his previous 10 games. There was no guarantee that points run was going to continue in a tight series against a defensive-oriented Wild team, but the presence of him and Stone flanking the same line was a nightmare for opposing teams.
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Nowhere was that more evident than with the man advantage, as the Golden Knights came up empty on three power play chances on Sunday. That extended a power play drought that has seen the club go 2-for-20 with Pacioretty out. Their efforts with the extra man were admittedly disappointing all season long (they scored at a rate of just 17.8%), but removing Pacioretty and his 24 goals surely makes the league’s third-most potent offense less threatening.
Of course, there’s more to Vegas being blanked than just Pacioretty. Cam Talbot was exceptional in making 42 saves, and Minnesota frustrated the Knights with a tight, physical playoff style. But the 13-year veteran has demonstrated an ability to thrive under those circumstances. Over the past two seasons, only Stone, Shea Theodore and Reilly Smith have registered more playoff points for Vegas than Pacioretty (19).
It’s unfair to suggest that the Golden Knights’ Game 1 offensive struggles fall on the absence of one player. After all, the long-entrenched second line of Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault couldn’t convert any of their 11 shots and were on the ice for Joel Eriksson Ek’s overtime winner. But a healthy Pacioretty offers a unique and much-needed dimension to the club’s offense, one that can’t come soon enough.
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.