It might be gut-check time for the Vegas Golden Knights.
No longer the top team in the Western Conference, Vegas has lost four of its last five games and its lead in the Pacific Division is down to nine points. The Golden Knights, once again in dire need of a victory, continue their five-game road trip against the Detroit Red Wings at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday.
Tomas Tatar, who was acquired in a deadline deal with Detroit, will face his former team. It’s also the first time the Golden Knights (42-19-5, 89 points) are facing the Red Wings since Oct. 13, when Marc-Andre Fleury took an Anthony Mantha knee to the head that sidelined him for the next two months.
Detroit (26-29-11, 63 points) is not out of the Eastern Conference playoff race by any means, but the Red Wings are running out of time. Detroit trails Columbus by 10 points with one game in hand. This is a vital game for both teams, but the Golden Knights might need it more from a standpoint of needing to string some wins together. Here’s what to look for.
Marc-Andre Fleury has to be better
One of the things Mike Hannah highlighted in his article on the past five games is Marc-Andre Fleury's fall from grace. He went from a .930 save percentage on the season to .926 because of this stretch where he's fallen to .905. His play is suffering, but the defense in front of him being hurt doesn't help.
Still, Fleury set high expectations for himself throughout this season. He needs to continue to live up to those expectations. If he doesn't, the Knights arrive at stretches like this.
It also doesn't help if Fleury allows soft goals like this one from Ian Cole against the Columbus Blue Jackets:
There cannot be a repeat performance of that game against the Red Wings.
Stop going to the box
Another alarming fact from the past five games: the Knights have gone from averaging 2.79 penalties per game to four. That's not great, and while the penalty kill has attempted to step up, it hasn't been enough.
Even if the Knights were able to kill every penalty thrown their way, they would still be spending unnecessary time playing defense instead of attacking in the offensive zone. With the way the offense is going, the Golden Knights need as much time as possible attacking the other net.
There's a simple solution to this problem: stop taking unnecessary penalties.
Shea Theodore needs to get on the score sheet
When Shea Theodore scores for the Golden Knights, they're 12-0-2.
Which means they should be finding ways for Theodore to score, or he should be lifting more on his shoulders.
Yes, he's essentially a rookie, but he's one of the best defensemen on the Knights' roster. He's also one of the most capable offensively. With Nate Schmidt out, Theodore's role becomes even more important.
It's been a while since Theodore scored a goal — Jan. 2 against the Nashville Predators. It could be very important that Theodore score against Detroit. After all, the only game the Knights have won in the past five-game stretch, Theodore added a primary assist.
Knights need more from the bottom six
Over this five-game stretch, only one goal has been entirely completed by the bottom six and that was from Ryan Carpenter. One goal from two lines. That's not good enough.
Taking away Tomas Hyka and putting him in the minors likely doesn't help things. After all, of the bottom six, he's performed perhaps the best. He added a primary assist to David Perron's goal against New Jersey, the sole win for the Knights.
The bottom six has to step up for the Knights to stay competitive. While it will be easier once James Neal is back and Alex Tuch is bumped to the third line and Carpenter to the fourth, it shouldn't matter. The Knights have the personnel to put out four scoring lines. If they're not doing that, then there's a problem.
How to watch
Time: 4:30 p.m. PT
TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM