There’s often talk when goalies string together a few outstanding starts in a row, they’re in a zone.
Take Marc-Andre Fleury, for example. A couple of back-to-back shutout stretches, sprinkle in a six-game winning streak late in the season, and you come to expect that from the face of the franchise.
With skaters, getting into a zone doesn’t seem plausible. Being able to race 200 feet across a sheet of ice while trying to maintain possession of a puck, and making the right play at full speed, doesn’t equate to a point guard running an offense on the basketball court.
“100 percent,” he said. “It happens all the time.”
Right now, that distinction belongs to Reilly Smith.
The numbers explain it all for the Golden Knights: 10-3-1 since Feb. 25 when Vegas acquired Mark Stone at the deadline from the Ottawa Senators.
But if there’s a case to be made for the best player on the Golden Knights not named Stone, it’s Smith.
Vegas’ top-line forward has 25 points (10 goals, 15 assists) in his past 22 games. This was on the heels of Smith missing nearly a month with a lower-body injury from Jan. 7 - Feb. 1. In his first three games since returning, he didn’t score a point.
That was the continuation of a personal 13-game stretch of totaling only three points (two goals, one assist).
“We’re definitely trying to get in the right direction, right now,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of positivity in this room right now, and I think the main goal for us is to keep our foot on the gas and make sure we’re trying to get better every day.”
Smith’s play has also sparked the resurgence of his linemates, Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. Their play is a far cry from being one of the top lines in hockey last season, but the 81-71-19 triad is heating up at the right time.
Karlsson, who scored 43 goals last season, cracked the 20-goal mark (and 50-point checkpoint) Thursday against Winnipeg. He has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in the past 12 games, including four multipoint games.
Marchessault has nine points in his last six games and is currently on a stretch of 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in his last 13 games. He had seven points in his previous 12.
“I think our line is doing a good job being able to create opportunities and finish them off,” Smith said. “We’ve gone through some droughts this season where that wasn’t the case, so it’s nice to see us finally being rewarded.
“I think you have a bit more confidence, especially your first touch on pucks. I’d say it’s nice being able to play with the two players that are on my line. They create opportunities for me, night in and night out, and that hasn’t changed all season. It’s nice that they’re going in the back of the net right now, and I think all three of us are creating offense.”
Maybe it’s confidence. Maybe it’s the addition of Stone taking pressure off the top line.
Honestly, take your pick, and it’s probably right. It might even be luck.
“I think it’s just the fact that we’re getting a little more lucky right now,” Marchessault said. “We’re playing the right way. All year, we’ve had a good line with a lot of chances, but we just weren’t producing. Right now, we’re producing a little easier.
“It really feels like last year a little bit where hockey was easier. This year, we’ve had our struggles, but right now it feels like the hockey we’re able to play, and we’re playing it.”
Follow-up question: Is it more of a swagger-type ordeal?
Marchessault: “Yeah, I think we have our swagger back.”
That’s why Smith is putting the puck between his legs.
You can thank Smith for that swagger revival. It’s not just him scoring goals, it’s how 19 has found the back of the net. The past two games have put that on display.
His first goal against Winnipeg was created off a steal from Stastny, but Smith did the dirty work. He evaded Joe Morrow once, glided past him as he slid toward the net and beat Laurent Brossoit short side.
The next game, Saturday against the Red Wings, Smith put on a master class of penalty killing by forcing a turnover and scoring a shorthanded goal that gave Vegas a short-lived 2-1 lead in the third period. Vegas would go on to lose that game.
Yet it’s just another example of what happens when he gets time and space to operate.
“Even when Reilly wasn’t scoring and putting the puck in the the net, he was an important player for our hockey team,” Gallant said. “He’s getting some beautiful goals, he’s shooting the puck, he’s confident and scoring goals. It just adds to our team. I’ve had him for quite a while now, in Florida and now here, and I like what he does for us.”
The Golden Knights have had three chances to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since that win against Winnipeg but have failed to do so. Three straight losses for a team that, arguably, doesn’t care about division standings might not be constituted as a problem.
But Vegas has struggled offensively the past three games since losing Pacioretty to a lower-body injury last Thursday. Vegas has been outscored 10-6, which isn’t bad, but it’s not great.
The good news: The top line is starting to find its groove. If that rolls into the playoffs when Pacioretty comes back and fortifies that second line, the Golden Knights could be the most dangerous team in the Western Conference playoff race.
That’s why they play 82 games.