The start of the Golden Knights’ season hasn’t quite been on par with what was expected of the reigning Western Conference champs. After being walloped in the season opener, Vegas went on to lose three of their next four games, including an ugly 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Columbus Day.
Tuesday night, the Knights had an opportunity to make up for their mediocre showing in the first meeting with Buffalo, and they took full advantage.
Jonathan Marchessault opened the scoring late in the first period by providing Vegas with its first power-play tally of the season. Later on, Cody Eakin provided another special teams goal for Vegas — this one coming on the penalty kill to give the Knights a comfy two-goal lead. From there, the Golden Knights managed to fend off Buffalo’s dangerous power play multiple times in order to secure their first home victory of the season.
Power play finally gets the elusive first goal
Prior to Tuesday night’s game, the Knights had gone 0-for-16 on the man advantage to start the season. Whether it was due to bad luck or just a general lack of chemistry, the Vegas power play often looked pedestrian through the Knights’ first six games.
That finally changed in their second outing against the Sabres.
On Vegas’ first power play opportunity of the night, Marchessault roofed a perfect feed from William Karlsson to give the Knights a 1-0 lead just 38 seconds into the man advantage. It may have taken longer than one would prefer, but Vegas finally got the monkey off its back. And from there, the power play looked much more confident as the game progressed.
The Knights were particularly sharp when making zone entries, which directly resulted in the first power-play tally of the season.
“That was real key for sure,” said coach Gerard Gallant of the power play’s success when entering the zone. “When [Alex Tuch] is playing and he’s not hurt, he comes down that dot with a lot of speed, and I thought the guys had more speed tonight. They made clean plays, they made good passes and obviously the goal was because of that.”
Penalty kill continues to impress
Much of the talk regarding Vegas’ special teams will surround the power play, but the Knights’ penalty kill has been nothing short of superb as of late, and particularly against the Sabres. Buffalo was awarded six opportunities on the man advantage Tuesday night, and Vegas killed off all of those chances with ease.
Moreover, Buffalo’s power play was actually outscored by the Knights’ penalty kill, thanks to a gorgeous shorthanded snipe from Eakin early in the second frame.
After a noticeably underwhelming start to the season in shorthanded situations, the return of Eakin (lower-body) has paid off for Vegas. Eakin was arguably Vegas’ best penalty killer last season and looks to have picked up right where he left off. Through four games, Eakin has potted three goals, two of which going on to be game-winners.
The Golden Knights’ PK has now successfully killed off nine straight power play opportunities and ranks ninth in the NHL with a PK% of 80.95.
Wild Bill finally nets his first of the season
Karlsson had been held goalless through Vegas’ first six games of the season, and after a campaign in which the 25-year-old Swede netted 43 goals, some were concerned that his unforeseen run of regular goal-scoring was finally coming to an end.
Tuesday night, though, those claims were put to rest. At least for now.
Karlsson netted his first goal of the season against Buffalo — a 5-on-5 tally that proved to serve as a handy cushion as Vegas held off the desperate Sabres toward then end of the final third.
“We like Karlsson tonight getting his first goal. It’s nice to get that one out of the way, and now the next 42 will come easy for him,” Gallant said after the game with a grin.
Despite just now scoring his first goal of the season, however, it would be misguided and downright reckless to suggest Karlsson hasn’t been playing well this season. Wild Bill has collected seven points in as many games (including his three points against Buffalo), and leads all Golden Knights players not named Jonathan Marchessault in scoring.
The offense has clearly been there for Karlsson. He’s just been setting up the goals rather than scoring them — a reversed role from what we saw from him last season.
Fleury stellar once again
Just a couple days after recording his first shutout of the season, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury flirted with earning the 50th shutout of his career against the Sabres. For 59 minutes and 24 seconds, Fleury was perfect in the cage, stopping every shot fired in his direction.
That is until Vladimir Sobotka played spoiler.
To the chagrin of the donut-hungry Knights fans in attendance, Sobotka finally got one past Fleury with just 36 seconds remaining in regulation. Sobotka’s goal had virtually no impact on the game’s outcome, making the last-second tally that much more nagging.
Of course, that should not dispel what was an excellent performance from Fleury. The 33-year-old stopped 26 of Buffalo’s 27 shots, including eight shorthanded saves and an excellent point-blank save on Buffalo sniper Jeff Skinner.
Fleury also made a little bit of history with this victory, tying Glenn Hall for 10th place on the NHL’s all-time wins list. He now needs just 16 more wins to tie Tony Esposito’s mark of 423 career victories, which ranks ninth all-time.
Fourth line excels
The fourth line may not have contributed on the scoresheet, but the trio of William Carrier, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Ryan Reaves certainly helped invigorate the team early on against Buffalo.
Despite the line seeing below 10 minutes of ice time at even-strength, Vegas’ physical checking line produced numerous high-danger chances that nearly resulted in goals.
“[The fourth line] didn’t play a whole lot because of the penalties, but they were outstanding,” said Gallant. “They’re tough to play against. I know most of the other teams don’t enjoy playing against that line. They compete, they battle hard and they started it tonight.”
Hulking winger Ryan Reaves has been particularly impressive as of late. Through Vegas’ first seven games, Reaves ranks fifth on the Golden Knights (ahead of Marchessault, Karlsson and Reilly Smith) with a 65.22 HDCF% at 5-on-5. He’s also done an excellent job of staying out of the penalty box, taking just one penalty on the season — a five-minute major for fighting.