The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off an impressive and crucial 4-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings in which Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch scored two goals each and Marc-Andre Fleury recorded a 28-save shutout.
Today’s matinee in Buffalo is an opportunity for the Knights to get back on track as they head into the final stretch of the regular season, holding a 10-point lead over the Sharks in the Pacific Division and sitting second overall in the Western Conference with a 43-19-5 record and 91 points.
The Sabres recently traded winger Evander Kane and are without forwards Jack Eichel, Kyle Okposo and Evan Rodrigues as well as defensemen Zach Bogosian and Jake McCabe. Even so, Buffalo (22-35-11, 55 points) has managed some upsets of late, handing the Bruins, Lightning and Maple Leafs losses in the last few weeks. Goaltender Chad Johnson had been playing very well until surrendering four goals on 16 shots the other night against Calgary. Buffalo is 2-2-0 in its last four games, relying heavily on the offensive production of forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart, who sit second and third overall in team scoring with 50 and 38 points, respectively.
These teams have not played since Oct. 17. Vadim Shipachyov was skating in his second NHL game when the Sabres were in Sin City. The Knights took a 4-1 lead a few minutes into the third period before blowing that three-goal lead and eventually settling the score in overtime, where David Perron took care of business with this memorable snipe.
Here’s what to watch for in today’s rematch.
Paying for penalties
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, and not the statistical kind the Knights have shattered all season, a key to this afternoon’s game will be Vegas’ ability to kill penalties.
Clearly, the best way to kill a penalty is not to take one in the first place. But should penalties be called, it’s imperative that the Golden Knights shut things down. The regular season is quickly dwindling, so there’s no time like the present to hunker down and address what has become a glaring eyesore in the portfolio of Vegas’ strengths and weaknesses.
The Knights went 3-for-3 on the penalty kill Thursday in Detroit and have killed off all five penalties they’ve taken since the return of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Plus, their penalty kill has been more effective on the road over the last 5-6 weeks, operating at a 76.7 percent success rate in road games since Feb. 1.
While Buffalo has gone 0-for-6 on its last six power plays, that doesn’t mean the Sabres don’t pose a threat on the man advantage. In fact, despite being the second-worst team in the league, Buffalo has the tenth-best power play in 2018, converting on 22.6 percent of its chances.
Playing in your own arena in front of your own fans is often a meaningful advantage for teams in any sport. After all, it has been a major aspect of Vegas’ success this season, as the Knights have gone 24-7-2 at T-Mobile Arena.
For whatever reason, however, the Sabres have struggled in Buffalo all year. In fact, Buffalo has won a league-low 10 times on home ice this season, going 10-19-4 in 33 games. Obviously, for a team at the bottom of the standings, wins are hard to come by regardless of the setting; Buffalo has just 12 away wins this year, going 12-16-7 on the road.
But Buffalo has picked up 24 out of a possible 66 points on home ice compared to 31 out of a possible 70 on the road, which equates roughly to points percentages of 36 percent (home) and 44 percent (away). Since the Knights are fighting for playoff positioning, every point matters. If you look at win percentage alone, the Sabres have won 10 times in 33 home games (30 percent) and 12 times in 35 away games (34 percent), further demonstrating that they’ve performed slightly better on the road.
Third line’s a charm
With top performers like James Neal and Reilly Smith on the shelf, the Knights need more offense from the bottom six. Refreshingly, the Knights got that in spades Thursday against Detroit, with Tuch and Eakin netting two goals apiece. It was the first multi-goal game in Tuch’s young NHL career as he snapped a six-game goalless drought, and Eakin recorded just his third multi-point performance of the season with two goals and an assist. That matched his combined production from 28 games in 2018.
The only player to breach the top-six forwards in points per 60 minutes this season is Ryan Carpenter (2.42). So if the third line and bottom six in general can continue to produce or, at the very least, contribute strong shifts in the offensive zone and sustain momentum, that would be a huge boost for this Knights team, especially with multiple top-six scorers out of the lineup.
How to Watch
Time: 10 a.m. PT
TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM