Once upon a time, the Vegas Golden Knights were up three games to one over the San Jose Sharks and were headed to California, looking to close out their biggest rivals, in front of their own fans. Two games later, the series is tied and the Sharks have the Golden Knights on the ropes, looking to land the knockout punch. Following a double-overtime thriller, capped by a Tomas Hertl game-winning, shorthanded goal, the stakes are at an all-time high.
In Game 6, the Golden Knights pushed the pace of play and racked up a whopping 59 shots on goal. Unfortunately for them, two things stopped them from winning the game. One was a lack of finish. They simply didn’t get to the dirty areas enough to take the game from the Sharks. Second, the Sharks goalie, Martin Jones, pulled a Jim Carey, threw on the green mask, and turned into a whole new goaltender.
In Games 2 and 4, Jones faced a mere seven shots in each, allowing three and two goals, respectively, prior to being replaced by Aaron Dell. Over the last two games, Jones has been lights out, leading the Sharks to two straight victories and a chance to make a huge comeback on Tuesday evening. With their two-game lead erased and heading into their first-ever Game 7, it has become clear that the Golden Knights need another option on offense.
To Add a Player, One Needs to Sit
Despite their struggles scoring goals in Game 6, the Golden Knights are a deep team up front. With eight bona fide, no doubt about it, top-nine players, this club should never have a problem scoring. Currently, they roll the following forward lines:
J. Marchessault – William Karlsson – Reilly Smith
M. Pacioretty – P. Stastny – M. Stone
T. Nosek – C. Eakin – A. Tuch
W. Carrier – P.E Bellemare – R. Reaves
As you may have guessed, Tomas Nosek is the one member of the top-nine who simply does not belong. He had a strong performance in Game 6 and was highly regarded out of training camp, but Nosek is more accurately a good fourth liner and stellar penalty killer. His value as a penalty killer is worth keeping him in the lineup, but not on the third line. That third line needs scoring help, something Nosek is not providing. Nosek should slide back down to the fourth line, reuniting him with his former linemates, Carrier and Bellemare.
But wait, what about everyone’s favorite fighter, the newly-coined “Muffin Man,” Reaves? Reaves was extremely valuable to the team, as they recovered from a Game 1 loss in San Jose. He got under the skin of the Sharks, most notably Evander Kane, leading to a slew of power plays for his club. Even better than the power plays are the post-game quotes. Below is a doozie from Reaves, reacting to Kane’s jab at Reaves’ fighting ability.
Despite Reaves’ best effort, during Games 5 and 6, there was a noticeable change in the Sharks’ demeanor. They no longer took the bait, engaging in extra-curriculars between the whistles. At one point in Game 6, Kane took a late hit from Brayden McNabb, but he chose not to engage, simply putting his head down and skating away. This new mentality out of the Sharks takes away Reaves’ biggest weapon and the justification of keeping him in the lineup. It is not a popular opinion in Vegas, but Reaves needs to be the odd-man-out for Game 7.
Reaves’ Replacement Should Be…
His replacement should be a goal-scorer. Both Eakin and Tuch can forecheck with the best of them, play a solid 200-foot game, and distribute the puck well in the offensive zone. Finding a new winger for to match their skillsets is quite frankly, very simple. Luckily for the Golden Knights, there is an abundance of in-house help, chomping at the bit to play.
Valentin Zykov is a highly-skilled offensive winger. Since coming to the team via waivers (from the Edmonton Oilers), Zykov has skated as an extra on the fourth line in practice. He regularly shows off his soft hands and nose for the net during team skating drills. For a brief stretch, he cracked the lineup and didn’t look out of place one bit. In his 10 games, he was able to notch two goals. It’s also important to remember that he is coming off a 33-goal campaign last season at the AHL level. He is familiar with the North American style of play, but hasn’t been able to secure a full-time NHL roster spot. Taking all of that into account, the 23-year-old Russian is not the player who should replace Reaves.
Speaking of Russia, the Golden Knights recently brought the defending Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) MVP, Nikita Gusev into the mix. Gusev was signed to a one-year deal by the team on April 13. Since then, Gusev has been practicing with the team, going as far as skating alongside the top line on the practice rink. He left the KHL in 10th place on the KHL’s all-time points list with 332 regular season points. He is a crafty, pass-first player, and has no experience playing in North America, a transition not to be taken lightly. Although many VGK fans would love to see it, Gusev is not the answer for the third line, at this point in time.
Hello Brandon Pirri
He may be the forgotten man on the roster, but Pirri is the right man for the job. Not only does Pirri have experience playing with the club, he built rapport with both Tuch and Eakin earlier in the season. Prior to making the jump to the NHL, he was leading the entire AHL in points. Furthermore, Pirri was so good upon his promotion from the AHL, in Pacioretty’s absence, that it became impossible for general manager George McPhee to bury him with the Chicago Wolves (AHL).
He is a shoot-first player, which suits guys like Tuch and Eakin. Those two can work the low boards, finding Pirri and his big shot in the slot and/or half wall. As all shooters do, he experienced a cold streak and was never able to consistently get back into action. For some strange reason, he has been overlooked for grinders like Reaves and Carrier and for penalty-killers in Nosek and Ryan Carpenter. Pirri’s presence gives the team another legitimate scoring option, but not while he is in a suit in the press box. Over his 31 games played this season at the NHL level, he has a whopping 12 goals. That total ties him for eighth on the team, with far less games than his counterparts.
The Odds of a Change are Hard to Gauge
From the outside looking in, it seems obvious that Pirri is the man for the job. He has displayed goal-scoring potential at every stop in his nine-year NHL career. Staring down the barrel at their first Game Seven and second ever elimination game, the Golden Knights need a spark. The morning after their Game 6 loss, the Golden Knights held an optional skate and head coach Gerard Gallant held his usual post-practice Q&A. During the session, he was non-committal about lineup changes, but he did say that a few players have “minor injuries” and lineup changes “are definitely a possibility” for fresher legs.
Regardless of what happens on Tuesday night in San Jose, this series has been on par with the rest of the league. This may be the most exciting, shocking, upset-loaded playoff in recent history. With underdogs like the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, and Columbus Blue Jackets awaiting their opponents in the second round, the Golden Knights look to become the fourth lower seed to advance. From the time Game 5 ended, my proclamation has been that the Game 6 winner will also be the series winner. Only time will tell, but Game 7 will be a heck of a battle in the Shark Tank.