After a largely unsuccessful four-game road trip, the Vegas Golden Knights returned to T-Mobile Arena to take on their division rival Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. Just a few days following their 4-1 stinker in Boston, it almost felt as if a win against Anaheim was absolutely essential for the Knights as they approach the quarter mark of their sophomore season. And in what many considered a must-win game, the Golden Knights delivered in spectacular fashion, blowing out the Ducks 5-0 in their first game back in the Fortress since Nov. 3.
Forward Alex Tuch got the party going late in the first period when he netted a greasy power-play goal to open the scoring. And then in the second period, the floodgates opened.
Cody Eakin scored twice in the middle frame while defenseman Nick Holden potted his second of the season, albeit with a little help from Ducks forward Adam Henrique.
After Tomas Hyka notched his first goal of the season early in the third period to give Vegas the five-goal lead, the Golden Knights’ main focus shifted to keeping their opponent from orchestrating a comeback — something the Knights struggled mightily with on their most recent road trip.
This time, though, the Knights succeeded, keeping Anaheim off the scoresheet entirely as they continue to claw their way back into the wide-open Pacific Division race.
Vegas plays much faster than in recent showings
In the days leading up to Vegas’ game against Anaheim, both assistant coach Mike Kelly and suspended defenseman Nate Schmidt made it clear that the team had not been playing fast enough.
Wednesday night, that changed.
For the first time all season, the Golden Knights played a game similar to what we saw from them in their inaugural campaign — a fast-paced, opportunistic style that forced opponents into problematic situations. Whether it was by generating odd-man rush opportunities, crashing the net to recover a loose puck or simply making smarter decisions, the Knights were finally playing the way we expected they would going into the season.
“We want to play that game every day. That’s what it’s all about,” said Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant after Thursday’s practice. “You hear any coach saying, ‘I want to play faster, I want our team playing faster,’ I thought they played fast last night. And that’s what we want to keep doing.”
Alex Tuch has only been playing in the NHL for a little over a year, but it’s hard not to be over the moon about how he’s developed since earning a spot on Vegas’ full-time roster early last season. After scoring 15 goals and 37 points as a rookie, Tuch is now averaging a point per game in his sophomore campaign while ranking third on the Golden Knights with five goals.
One of those goals, off a rebound forced by a Max Pacioretty deflection, came against the Ducks to open the scoring in what one could reasonably consider Tuch’s best performance as an NHLer. And while Tuch was excellent offensively, it was his defensive play that particularly stood out against Anaheim.
Late in the first period, the Ducks were frantically looking to respond to Tuch’s goal from just a couple minutes earlier. Skating behind the net with time dying down in the frame, a Ducks forward found a wide-open Josh Manson at the point, who unleashed a vicious one-timer toward Fleury. However, before the pass to Manson was even delivered, Tuch was already aware of the potential danger and skated into Manson’s shooting lane, blocking the 27-year-old blueliner’s slapper out of harm’s way.
Later on, Tuch made another fantastic defensive play that led to a quality scoring chance for the Golden Knights. And once again, it was Josh Manson being victimized by Tuch’s stellar defense. With Manson looking to make a pass to Andrew Cogliano along the near boards in the neutral zone, Tuch swooped in behind Manson and pickpocketed him, generating a Vegas rush in the other direction. Tuch then threw a backhand pass to Pacioretty in the high slot to create a solid scoring chance.
Tuch not only delivered offensively, but his defensive game was nothing short of superb against the Ducks. And for him, he’s continuing to improve his game by simply outworking everyone else.
“I’m just trying to come in and work really hard every day,” said Tuch after Thursday’s practice. “Another year of experience under my belt I think helps. I think our team is starting to play a little better every day.”
Fleury excellent after rough road trip
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was unbeatable Wednesday night, earning everyone in attendance some free Krispy Kreme doughnuts to boot. Fleury turned aside all 29 shots the Ducks fired in his direction, and it’s the exact response he needed since last tending the crease.
In his most recent start ahead of this shutout performance, Fleury surrendered five goals in just two periods against the Montreal Canadiens, ultimately allowing the Habs to pick up a come-from-behind victory after trailing the Knights 2-0 early on.
That said, of course, Fleury wasn’t wearing his golden pads against Montreal.
The 33-year-old goaltender debuted his new pads against Anaheim, and they did not disappoint. Now, Fleury has no choice but to keep wearing the new equipment until he’s given a reason otherwise.
“I’ll wear them next game for sure, and then we’ll see,” said Fleury. “It’s game by game.”
Eakin keeps point streak going
Don’t look now, but Cody Eakin is on pace to score around 30 goals this season. The 27-year-old forward has already scored seven times this season, which is particularly impressive when taking into account that he only managed 11 goals in 80 games last year. He’s made a huge impact in the early going, and his two-goal performance against Anaheim may have been his best all season.
Without a doubt, his gorgeous shorthanded backhander should go down as one of the prettier goals of the Knights’ 2018-19 campaign.
Eakin has now registered at least one point in each of his last five games, including four goals and a pair of helpers.
“Cody has been excellent,” said Gallant. “He has played real good hockey for us all season long. He has been real consistent and he is playing his role. Now he steps up and plays with [the second line] with Haula and Stastny being out and he has done great. Tonight was a great game. He scored two beautiful goals and had a chance for the hat trick late in the power play, but he has played well and stepped up and has really taken advantage of it.”
Third line shows signs of improvement
Vegas’ third line has struggled mightily for much of the season’s early going. Granted, injuries have forced Tomas Nosek, Ryan Carpenter and Tomas Hyka to form the makeshift line, but that cannot excuse the bland play of the trio.
Wednesday night, however, the third line finally got into a bit of a groove. Hyka scored his first goal of the season after Nosek blazed past Josh Manson (not a great night for him) to create a juicy rebound in front of the net.
But that wasn’t the only encouraging sign displayed by that line. Early in the game, Carpenter sprung Nosek for what would have been a nice scoring chance, but ended up forcing Anaheim to take a penalty. Just a few minutes later, the two of them teamed up again when Carpenter hit Nosek with a behind-the-net pass that resulted in a high-danger scoring chance, but John Gibson managed to turn the shot away.
Not-so-coincidentally, Carpenter, Nosek and Hyka finished the contest with the highest 5-on-5 Corsi For percentages on the Vegas roster (70.00, 69.57 and 68.18, respectively). It was likely the best performance we’ve seen from this line all season, and it couldn’t have come at a better time as Vegas looks to get out of its recent woes.