After several long months of waiting, the Golden Knights finally returned to meaningful action Thursday night as they took on the Philadelphia Flyers at a packed T-Mobile Arena. Many were curious to see how Vegas would follow up its incredible Cinderella campaign from the 2017-18 season, and once the smoke cleared and the pregame festivities came to a close, the Knights did initially look like the team that clawed its way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Unfortunately, though, Vegas’ fast start didn’t last long. After taking an early lead, the Flyers went on a five-goal outburst that sent many spectators home earlier than expected. A night that many had circled on their calendars months in advance turned out to be a disappointing outing for the reigning Western Conference champs.
Jon Merrill and Nick Holden struggle
Going into the opener, there was a fair amount of uncertainty regarding Vegas’ third defensive pairing of Holden, who the Golden Knights signed to a two-year, $4.4 million contract in July, and Merrill, who spent much of last season as the Knights’ seventh defenseman. Holden and Merrill have proven to be passable defenders in the past, but their start to the new season was disastrous to say the least.
Together, the duo surprisingly managed to drive play quite well, logging a 57.14 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5. However, their numerous gaffes in coverage cost the Golden Knights heavily. Merrill and Holden were on the ice for three of the Flyers’ five goals Thursday night, and the duo was directly responsible for each of those Philadelphia tallies.
On Philadelphia’s first goal, Merrill got caught deep in the offensive zone and allowed an easy 2-on-1 rush the other way that resulted in Oskar Lindblom’s game-tying goal (which bounced off of Holden’s skate and into the net). Later, Merrill and Holden left Wayne Simmonds, arguably the best netfront presence in the NHL, all alone on the doorstep to give Philadelphia the lead. Granted, this goal could have been avoided had Oscar Lindberg successfully cleared the puck moments beforehand, but that’s a much different issue than the one presented by the defense.
It was not an inspiring outing for the Knights’ third pairing, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Brad Hunt, who scored a career-high 18 points last season, gets a chance to prove himself in the not-too-distant future.
Jonathan Marchessault is still very, very good
They call him the #CorsiGod for a reason. After an impressive 75-point campaign last season, Marchessault has solidified himself as one of the better play-drivers at his position and could arguably be the most electrifying player on Vegas’ roster. Thursday night, he wasted no time making his presence felt as he scored the game’s first goal to give Vegas the early lead.
The Golden Knights may not have been able to keep the momentum going, but that’s not to say Marchessault didn’t have an impressive performance. His 66.67 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 Thursday night trailed that of only Colin Miller (68.18) and, had it not been for an uncharacteristic missed shot at a mostly open net, Marchessault could have finished the night with a pair of big goals.
Malcolm Subban stellar in relief of Fleury
Many came into the new season with sky-high expectations for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. After coming off the best statistical season of his career, the Golden Knights rewarded Fleury with a three-year, $21 million contract extension this past summer. And though he will turn 34 this November, his All-Star performance throughout the 2017-18 season (and not to mention the Stanley Cup Playoffs) was more than enough to warrant the long-term partnership.
However, Thursday night’s game is surely one Fleury would like to forget. The three-time Stanley Cup winner allowed five goals on 16 shots in the game’s first 30 minutes before discretely being pulled during a TV timeout at the game’s midway point. Taking over for Fleury was Subban, who, despite coming into a less-than-ideal situation, looked sharp in the cage as Vegas attempted to stop the bleeding.
In just under 30 minutes as the fill-in backstop, Subban turned away all nine Philadelphia shots fired in his direction, including a pair of stops against the dangerous Flyers power play. He wasn’t tested often, but Subban did manage to put together an inspiring performance in Fleury’s relief.
Vegas remains a threat on the penalty kill, but not on the man advantage
The Knights had one of the better penalty kills in the NHL last season, and if the preseason and Thursday night’s season opener are any indication, it doesn’t appear they’re on pace to see much of a regression in that regard.
In Vegas’ preseason finale, the Golden Knights potted an astounding three shorthanded goals. Granted, it was a meaningless exhibition game, but the success on the penalty kill certainly seems to have translated to the regular season. Aside from a gorgeous scoring play by the Flyers’ top power play unit early in the middle third, the Golden Knights denied Philadelphia on all three of its additional opportunities on the man advantage. And if that wasn’t enough, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored a beautiful shorthanded goal in the third period for good measure, albeit with a little help from an unintentional (?) low blow to Shayne Gostisbehere that created the neutral zone turnover.
It wasn’t a perfect night for the penalty kill, but there are certainly reasons for optimism moving forward, especially considering the unit’s recent play even without PK specialist Cody Eakin in the lineup.
Vegas’ power play, however, still has some work to do. In its three chances, including a slightly shortened two-man advantage, the Knights failed to find paydirt and managed only four shots on net. Against a penalty kill as pedestrian as Philadelphia’s (which ranked third-worst in the NHL least season), there shouldn’t be too many positives to take away from this one.
Haula looking comfortable on the wing
One of the big mysteries going into the season was the usage of Erik Haula. After finding a home at center on Vegas’ second line last season, the addition of Paul Stastny caused some to wonder if Haula would be better suited playing center on the third line as opposed to simply shifting to right wing.
From what was shown in the opener, though, it looks like Haula could work just fine on the right flank alongside Stastny and premier goal scorer Max Pacioretty. The line didn’t necessarily set the world on fire in its first regular-season action, but the trio did show flashes of what may be to come. One example of this came just after the midway point of the first period when Haula hit Stastny with a behind-the-net feed that resulted in a high-danger chance.
While Haula has made it clear in the past that he prefers playing center, he certainly isn’t shying away from taking on his new role on the wing.
“Erik’s been outstanding,” said Knights head coach Gerard Gallant following Wednesday’s practice. “If you asked him where he’d love to play, he’d love to play center. But if you ask where he’s happy right now, he’s definitely happy playing wing, so that’s what matters to me. It’s about playing for the team.”
All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.