The Vegas Golden Knights’ four-game road trip could not have started on a lower note. Despite badly outshooting their opponent 37-21, Vegas still ended up losing 3-1 to the Auston Matthews-less Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday evening.
And that’s not the only thing the Knights lost.
Adding salt to the wound was the loss of forward Erik Haula, who exited the game early in the third period after taking a clean hit from Patrick Marleau. Haula fell to the ice awkwardly as his right knee buckled beneath him before being stretchered to the back room. If Gerard Gallant’s recent update on Haula serves as any indication, it’s possible the injury could have looked much worse than it actually was. For now, though, expect Haula to be out of action for a while.
The Knights needed a big response after their stop in Toronto, and they followed up, scoring a season-high five goals to take down the Senators in Canada’s capital.
Power play finally breaks through
The Golden Knights’ early struggles on the power play have been well-documented. Prior to Thursday night, Vegas’ power play had converted on just six of its 51 opportunities, making it one of the league’s most inefficient units to start the season.
Against Ottawa, though, the Knights were perfect on the man advantage, going 2-for-2 on the night and scoring multiple power-play goals in a single contest for the first time all season.
Jonathan Marchessault got the ball rolling late in the first period when he beat Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson cleanly with a perfectly placed wrister on the blocker side.
Minutes later, defenseman Shea Theodore scored his second of the season off a wicked one-timer to give Vegas the comfortable two-goal lead.
While it’s certainly nice to see things starting to click on the power play, it’s important to note that Ottawa’s penalty kill is by far one of the worst in the NHL, as pointed out by Chris Tierney in the infamous Uber video. It’s an encouraging sign for Vegas, but take it with a grain of salt.
Fourth line dominates again
Last season, many considered Vegas’ first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith the best line on the team (or in the NHL entirely). This season, it’s fair to wonder if the Knights’ fourth line may actually be their most efficient trio of forwards.
Following a furious game-tying surge by Ottawa in the third period, the fourth line came to the rescue and produced a pair of goals to eventually secure the victory for Vegas. First, it was William Carrier getting on the board after gorgeously skating around Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki. Not long after, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare scored his third of the year in somewhat controversial fashion.
With Carrier draped all over Anderson, Bellemare had a wide open net to shoot at that eventually led to another two-goal lead for Vegas. It initially appeared the goal would be waived off relatively quickly, but further review proved that it was actually Anderson, not Carrier, who initiated contact outside the crease. Had Carrier been inside the blue paint and made contact with Anderson, this would be a whole different story. But that was not the case. Anderson impeded with Carrier, and therefore the goal stood.
It’s hard not to be impressed with what Vegas’ fourth line is doing. Bellemare, Carrier and Ryan Reaves all rank toward the top of the list in play-driving metrics among Knights skaters, and it’s become evident that the trio tends to tilt the ice in Vegas’ favor every time they take a shift.
Penalty kill continues success
Much of the talk regarding Vegas’ special teams will be centered around the power play, but the Knights’ penalty kill was also very good against Ottawa. But that’s to be expected at this point.
The Golden Knights have killed off 12 of their opponents’ last 13 opportunities on the power play. Their penalty killing percentage of 83.33 ranks eighth in the NHL, which is impressive in itself. Even more impressive, though, is the fact that Vegas has allowed just 52 shots in 42 shorthanded situations (averaging just 1.23 shots per).
Granted, the Knights are one of the least-penalized teams in the NHL, so they shouldn’t be allowing many shots while shorthanded. But it’s never a bad thing when a penalty kill regularly takes away the shooting lanes of opposing power play units.
Third line leaves much to be desired
The line of Tomas Nosek, Ryan Carpenter and Tomas Hyka just has not been up to snuff. The trio averaged just 9:15 of ice time against the Senators and were directly responsible for one of Ottawa’s goals in the third period. Specifically, it was a gaffe by Nosek in the high slot that led to Ryan Dzingel’s seventh goal of the season.
Nosek, Carpenter and Hyka have combined for just four points all season (one goal, three assists). Granted, injuries have not helped this line develop much (if any) chemistry, but the lack of jump and offensive proficiency has been noticeable. Thus far, Hyka is the only member of the line with a positive rating (plus-1) while Nosek and Carpenter are minus-10 and minus-9, respectively.
Unless the line gets things turned around fast, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if one of the three forwards winds up sitting in the press box for a game or two.
Reaves settles score with Borowiecki
In Vegas’ last meeting with Ottawa, Mark Borowiecki laid a high, hard hit on Knights forward Cody Eakin. Eakin would end up leaving the game early, but luckily didn’t suffer any major injuries.
Sticking up for Eakin was an unusual suspect — Jon Merrill. Merrill isn’t much of a fighter, and that was evident in his lopsided bout with Borowiecki. Despite losing the fight, though, Merrill’s teammates and coaches were elated that he stood up for Eakin against a much stronger opponent.
“Obviously stepping up for his teammates, it was real big,” said Gallant after the game. “Jonny’s not a big fighter, but when your teammate gets run over like that, he stepped up and it was perfect. Exactly what you have to do.”
After serving a three-game suspension for his hit on Eakin, Borowiecki had yet to be given a proper welcome back to the ice.
And that’s when Ryan Reaves stepped up.
Reaves’ play has been nothing short of exceptional recently, but his willingness to defend his teammates is what really separates him as one of Vegas’ more popular players. It’s now becoming more and more apparent why he was given such a lucrative contract extension over the summer.
Statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.