The Vegas Golden Knights overcame an obstacle last night when they recorded their third straight win, a feat they hadn’t accomplished through the first 28 games of the season.
Now Vegas (14-11-4) is in third place in the Pacific Division and therefore has a playoff spot to lose, which certainly hasn’t been the case for a while.
Tonight’s matchup against the Devils is another test for a Knights team that may be starting to get its ducks in a row.
Both clubs will be in the second half of back-to-back sets, as the Devils are coming off an embarrassing 7-1 loss to Buffalo. Newly-acquired goaltender Louis Domingue surrendered five first-period goals before being replaced by MacKenzie Blackwood, who gave up another two in a lopsided affair that actually saw the Devils outshoot the Sabres 45-32. Six of the seven goals against were even-strength tallies in what was one of New Jersey’s worst efforts of the year.
The Devils were hoping for a better response after getting shut out by the Rangers over the weekend, but they were unable to recover from a disastrous opening frame that resulted in Domingue breaking his stick over his knee like a baseball bat.
On the flip side, Vegas is coming off an impressive effort in a 4-1 win over the Rangers.
It feels like the season shifted when Max Pacioretty tied the game against Nashville with 0.3 seconds left last week, but tonight is still a vital cog in the 82-game season for the Knights. On the surface, it’s a game Vegas should be able to win. The Devils have struggled all year and are in 30th place in the overall standings with a 9-13-4 record.
However, no opponent can be taken lightly in today’s NHL, and it will be up to the Knights to go out and earn the two points that are up for grabs.
Here’s what to watch for in tonight’s tilt.
The goose is loose
Tonight is the long-awaited matchup between the Golden Knights and former Knight Nikita Gusev, who was traded for second- and third-round picks this summer before he ever played a game in a Knights sweater.
Gusev was one of New Jersey’s four notable offseason acquisitions, joining P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds and Jack Hughes. However, things haven’t gone well for the Devils so far.
Gusev got off to a solid start to the season, recording four points in his first seven games. However, he then experienced some growing pains as he adjusted to the NHL ice, and he even served as a healthy scratch for three straight games.
He’s shown flashes of the skill that earned him KHL MVP honors, and he has an impressive points-per-60 rate of 2.84 at 5-on-5.
Gusev has five goals and 12 points in 23 games, though four of those have come in his last three games. He had perhaps his best game of the season the other night against Montreal with a three-assist effort, and he has been active offensively skating on a line with Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman, two of the Devils’ more defensively-inclined forwards.
It’s unclear how the Devils will balance their lines after last night’s result, but Gusev should continue to play on the team’s top power-play unit, and he’ll be eager to shine against his former club.
Picking up speed
The Knights could very well have a new face in the lineup tonight after acquiring Chandler Stephenson from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 2021 fifth-round pick. The deal was officially announced following last night’s game.
Washington was forced to make a move with Nicklas Backstrom and Carl Hagelin returning from injury, and George McPhee is familiar with Stephenson. After all, he’s the one who drafted Stephenson in the third round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft when he was general manager of the Capitals.
The 25-year-old is set to join Vegas for tonight’s game and should slot in as the fourth-line center, especially with Nicolas Roy getting sent down to the AHL. That will allow William Carrier to remain on the third line, though Stephenson could be a candidate for that position as well.
Stephenson offers Gerard Gallant additional roster flexibility as he’s capable of playing both center and wing, and his speed will be an asset to the Knights’ up-tempo style. The Knights lacked offensive depth with the injury to Cody Eakin and the downfall of Valentin Zykov; Stephenson fills that void.
He possesses underrated skill, has a relentless work ethic and, again, is remarkably fast. Arguably, he was Washington’s second-fastest player behind only Jakub Vrana. While he’s not known for his offense, he came through with multiple clutch plays in Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup run.
But it’s safe to say that Stephenson has struggled to produce throughout his career. He has three goals and four points in 24 games this season, his third full season at the NHL level, and 14 goals and 33 points in 168 career regular-season games.
He also comes to Vegas with a 47.15 Corsi For percentage this season.
However, he has been used primarily as a defensive forward. Plus, it’s important to note that two of his three goals this season have been game-winning tallies.
McPhee took advantage of Washington’s salary cap conundrum with a relatively risk-free transaction; now Stephenson, who will wear No. 20 for the Knights, has a chance to follow in the footsteps of so many other Golden Knights players and make the most of his new opportunity.
Ready, set, go
The Golden Knights and Devils demonstrated last night how important it is to get off to a strong start.
Vegas was up 2-0 less than four minutes into the game and held a 4-0 lead early in the middle frame.
The Devils, meanwhile, were down 1-0 less than three minutes into their game against Buffalo, and that deficit tripled before the seven-minute mark of the first period.
Last night’s win improved Vegas’ record to 12-3-1 when scoring the first goal; the Knights remain 27th in the league with a 2-8-3 record when giving up the first goal.
The Devils haven’t won a ton of games in general this season, but they are 4-10-0 when their opponent strikes first.
Additionally, the Devils have not won a game when trailing after the first period (0-6-1) and are 1-9-0 when trailing after 40 minutes.
Clearly, the first period could play a particularly significant role in the outcome of tonight’s contest.
At the same time, the last time these teams played in New Jersey, Vegas had one of its most notorious collapses. The Knights were up 3-0 in the first period and held a 4-1 lead in the second but gave up four unanswered goals and lost 5-4 in overtime. So needless to say, the Knights will need to put forth a complete 60-minute effort if they want to give themselves the best chance to come away with two points.
Boqvist (#90) — Hischier (#13) — Palmieri (#21)
Coleman (#20) — Zajac (#19) — Gusev (#97)
Hall (#9) — Zacha (#37) — Bratt (#63)
Wood (#44) — Rooney (#16) — Simmonds (#17)
Greene (#6) — Severson (#28)
Vatanen (#45) — Subban (#76)
Butcher (#8) — Tennyson (#7)
Marchessault — Karlsson — Smith
Pacioretty — Stastny — Stone
Carrier — Glass — Tuch
Nosek — Stephenson — Reaves
McNabb — Schmidt
Hague — Theodore
Merrill — Engelland
How to watch
Time: 4 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM