After being blown out against the Calgary Flames on Monday, the Vegas Golden Knights desperately needed a win against the Arizona Coyotes Wednesday night — not only for the team’s playoff hopes, but for its confidence as well.
In what many considered a must-win game for Vegas, the Knights delivered a very strong performance against their desert counterpart, outshooting Arizona 25-21 and, of course, pulling out a huge 3-2 overtime victory on the road. Though Vegas still has some work to do to get back into contention, the gap was narrowed significantly against the Coyotes, and that should certainly give Vegas some much-needed swagger as the team prepares for its two-game back-to-back homestand.
Pacioretty getting hot
Max Pacioretty’s early-season struggles have been well-documented. In his first 14 games as a Golden Knight, the 30-year-old winger managed just a pair points (both goals) and struggled to make much of an impact offensively since former linemate Paul Stastny went down with an injury early in the season.
Recently, though, Pacioretty’s been producing at the rate many expected he would when Vegas traded for him over the summer. In his last five games, Pacioretty has logged four goals and a pair of helpers for six points. And his most recent point was a pretty big one.
With the game knotted up at two goals apiece in overtime, defenseman Shea Theodore burst into the offensive zone and put a shot on net that Arizona goaltender Darcy Kuemper padded away for a juicy rebound. Pacioretty then swooped in and finished the job, beating Kuemper with a five-hole backhander to earn Vegas its 10th win of the season.
“Pacioretty is one of those guys where, when he’s putting the puck in the net, he gets confidence and he feels good about himself. He definitely did that tonight,” said head coach Gerard Gallant after the game. “It couldn’t happen to a better player.”
It may not have been an ideal start to the season for Pacioretty, but it certainly feels like he’s finally getting comfortable with his new club.
Second line comes up big
While Pacioretty’s performance is nothing to sneeze at, it certainly helps that his linemates have been on their A-game as of late. Forwards Alex Tuch and Cody Eakin have been playing exceptionally well this season, and that continued in Arizona.
Eakin, who ranks second on the Golden Knights with eight goals on the season, has now registered eight points in his last nine games, including a helper on Pacioretty’s gorgeous tic-tac-toe goal late in the second period.
Tuch also finished the night with a helper, though had it not been for a close offside call, he would have added another assist to his point total (in electrifying fashion, to boot).
Impressively, despite Tuch being on the ice for only one offensive zone faceoff at 5-on-5 (his 11 other faceoffs at 5-on-5 were either in the neutral or defensive zone), he still managed to lead the Knights by a mile with a 5-on-5 Corsi For percentage of 76.92 against Arizona. Unsurprisingly, Pacioretty and Eakin were the only other players even close to Tuch in terms of play-driving efficiency at 5-on-5 (CF% of 66.67 and 65.00, respectively).
Penalty kill steps up in crunch time
Coming off a game in which Vegas’ penalty kill allowed three power-play goals in a little over 24 minutes, it felt as if the Knights’ luck in shorthanded situations could be running out. And that notion partially bled into Wednesday night’s contest in Glendale.
A little over 13 minutes into the final period, Arizona scored a power-play goal to tie the game up on its second opportunity on the man advantage. And it wasn’t a pretty way to give up a power-play goal, either, as Arizona forward Derek Stepan was left completely uncovered for the backdoor pass.
Later on, though, Vegas’ penalty kill stepped up made up for its earlier blemish.
With just 1:55 remaining in regulation, defenseman Brayden McNabb was sent to the penalty box for tripping up Arizona forward Christian Fischer. Suddenly, Arizona’s power play, which was 1-for-2 on the night at the time, had a chance to seal the deal in the game’s final minutes.
Luckily, Vegas’ PK came up with a huge kill to force overtime, not allowing a single shot on net during Arizona’s regulation-ending power play.
Fans and analysts alike have salivated over the Coyotes’ penalty kill all season, and for good reason. Arizona leads the NHL with a ridiculous 10 (!) shorthanded goals and has killed off 91.9 percent of opposing teams’ power plays. However, Vegas’ PK deserves a little bit of credit as well. Aside from its horrific showing against the Flames on Monday, the Knights’ PK has been arguably the second-best unit in the NHL this season. And it’s largely because of the penalty kill’s late-game efforts that Vegas was able to pick up two points against the Coyotes.
Fleury solid in the cage
Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has had his fair share of ups and downs this season, but the 33-year-old put together a sound performance against Arizona.
His 10th win of the season didn’t come without a little bit of help from the post, of course...
Even despite having a bit of luck on his side, though, Fleury made some big stops to help Vegas get the win in Arizona, turning aside 19 of the Coyotes’ 21 shots on net. Fleury now ranks tied for second in the NHL with 10 wins on the season behind only Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen, who leads the league with 12 victories.
Vegas very much alive in Pacific Division
It may not feel like it due to Vegas’ inconsistencies, but the Golden Knights are only two points out of a playoff spot right now. The Pacific Division is filled with middle-of-the-road clubs struggling to break away from the pack, and Vegas is right in the thick of things.
Four of Vegas’ next five games come against division rivals, and if the Knights manage to get hot during that stretch, they could be right back in the conversation as one of the best teams in the division.
“We want to stay in the race,” said Gallant after Thursday’s practice. “Our record’s not what we want, but we’ve been playing a little bit better and last night was a good start. We’ll see where it goes. We won two of three on the road trip and we had one stinker we didn’t like, but sometimes those stinkers make you a much better team, and hopefully that’s what’s going to happen.”