The Vegas Golden Knights will face one of their toughest tests of the season as the Pittsburgh Penguins roll into town.
Led by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Matt Murray, Kris Letang and the very good American boy Phil Kessel, the Penguins boast high-end star power, and solid secondary scoring options in Jake Guentzel, Conor Sheary, Patric Hornqvist and Bryan Rust, as well as Justin Schultz on the back end.
But for all that starpower, the Penguins are just 16-13-3 and mired in their worst stretch of play under head coach Mike Sullivan.
Vegas, on the other hand, is 19-9-2 despite missing their starting goalie for two months and getting just three games out of the man who was supposed to be their top-line center.
These two surprise stories collide tonight, and here is what you’re going to want to look for:
Marc-Andre Fleury vs. Pittsburgh
Well, this is rather obvious, eh? Face-of-the-franchise against the franchise with whom he spent the past 13 seasons. And it’s not like he was merely an athlete in that city, but rather a larger-than-life figure, who most recently donated a playground to the Boys and Girls club in the Steel City.
Assuming the probable reports come true, it will be the man who made Fleury expendable in the expansion draft in net against him tonight: Matt Murray.
Murray, who has racked up a 22-9-0 record in his playoff career, alongside a .928 save percentage and a 1.95 goals against average, has had a slow start to this season, ranking 54th of 64 qualifying goalies in Goals Saved Above Average, according to Corsica.Hockey.
But this is certainly about more than numbers. This is about emotion and familiarity. Will Fleury have the advantage because he knows where their forwards like to shoot or will Pittsburgh being able to solve Fleury because they’ve got the best book on him? One thing’s for sure—nobody is going to run Flower tonight.
How will Vegas handle the Crosby and Malkin lines?
For the bulk of the season, Vegas has used the Nate Schmidt-Luca Sbisa tandem as their shutdown pair. However, when going up against a team with two juggernaut lines, Vegas will need another pairing to bear that load.
The Shea Theodore-Deryk Engelland pairing features two players who have had gaffes with the puck in their own zone of late, so that leaves just the Brayden McNabb and Colin Miller pair to handle elite talent.
The other issue present is that Pittsburgh is a far faster team than Vegas. Even though the Golden Knights have proven themselves savvy and fast thinkers, they have their hands full with a team that boasts tremendous speed on both the wings and at center.
Eastern Conference teams posed a major threat for the Golden Knights in their long road trip a little under two months ago, as they went 1-4-1 in the six-game span.
Will the Knights bounce back?
To a man, the Golden Knights mentioned that they did not bring their A-game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, certainly not for a full 60 minutes anyway. Head coach Gerard Gallant echoed those sentiments in his post-game press conference and encouraged the team to come out strong against Pittsburgh on Thursday.
Watching how this team performs in the first period will be key today, as they looked sluggish and ill-advised with the puck in the early going on Tuesday.
If there’s one line that likely needs to step up in a big way, it’s the first line. Sure, Reilly Smith potted a gorgeous goal against the Hurricanes, but that line also had an expected goals percentage of 24% at 5-on-5.
For a top line, that is just not going to cut it. Fortunately, on the opposite end of the lineup, Vegas has the distinct advantage, as the Penguins’ fourth line features Carter Rowney and Ryan Reaves, two players that do not figure to move the needle in this affair. Having said that, a game against Reaves certainly increases the odds of a scrap going down at some point.
How to Watch
Time: 7 p.m. PT (10 p.m. ET)
Watch: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh, NHL Network
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM