This time last year, the Vegas Golden Knights were established in the standings race. It wasn’t until four games left until they finally clinched the Pacific Division, but the expectation of finishing first was near a formality.
That’s not the case this year. The Golden Knights, after a 4-7-1 record in February, have lost any chance of winning back-to-back division titles. But the Stanley Cup Playoffs are still very much a thing. Vegas is 3-0 since the trade deadline, and will look to push its winning streak to four when they host the Vancouver Canucks during a Sunday matinee at T-Mobile Arena.
Any game from this moment on is important to Vegas should they not want to fall out of a top-three placement in the division, because the Arizona Coyotes apparently will never lose for the remainder of time. The Coyotes defeated the Detroit Red Wings 3-1 on Saturday and trail the also-red-hot Minnesota Wild by one point for the second wild card.
Arizona trails Vegas by six points with a game in hand. Vegas will welcome a struggling Canucks team that’s still very much alive in the playoff race; they’re six points back of Arizona for the second wild card despite going 3-7-3 in their past 13 games. All it takes is a surge from Elias Pettersson to get this ship going.
Let’s dive into this thing.
The defensive impact of Mark Stone
The Golden Knights knew what they were getting when acquiring Stone at the trade deadline. He’s Vegas’ top scorer at 63 points. The time will come when those numbers reflect his play.
But as mentioned Friday, Stone makes up for the lack of points right now for what he does as a 200-foot playmaker. The new-look second line of Max Pacioretty, Paul Stastny and Stone have not allowed a goal at 5-on-5 since being formed this past Tuesday.
“I think people know him as an all-around player,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “I think he’s doing a real good job at both ends of the puck. Their forecheck has been really good the last few games. They’re getting lots of scoring chances and they’re not giving up a whole lot.”
With Stone on the ice, Vegas has accounted for 29 shots and has only allowed 14, while generating 23 scoring chances. Friday’s 3-0 win against Anaheim was the worst for that line analytically (39.29 Corsi percentage, five high-danger chances allowed, per NaturalStatTrick). The 67-26-61 line has a 28-12 edge in shots and didn’t allow a high-danger chance until Friday. The trio has been outstanding, and it starts with Stone.
Youth has appeared to have finally caught up to the Canucks.
They certainly still hold the Calder favorite with Pettersson, who has 56 points in 52 games. They’re slowly easing goalie phenom Thatcher Demko into the rotation with the likelihood of being the full-time starter next year.
But you have to wonder if Vancouver would be in a better spot if it got a better second-year campaign from Brock Boeser (43 points in 52 games) and better production from Bo Horvat (48 points in 65 games). The Canucks did acquire Tanner Pearson and Ryan Spooner in hopes of some bottom-six firepower for a balanced attack, but it might be too little, too late.
The Canucks were one of the media darlings early in the season, but they’re still some time away. When that time comes, look out.
Thoughts on the Western Conference playoff race
This has been a weird time. It’s also sad that I don’t get to say the Ducks are “THIS MANY POINTS BEHIND THE SECOND WILD CARD” anymore.
Calgary is likely going to be the top seed in the West when the dust settles, unless a collapse of epic proportions is in the cards. San Jose is hampered by enough injuries to where it can coast freely into the second spot in the Pacific with no real worry unless Vegas sweeps these next 16 games.
The Central Division continues to be awkward, but in a fun way. Winnipeg still looks to be the favorites to wrap it up, but Nashville in all its weirdness will not go away quietly. Meanwhile, the Blues didn’t beat the 10 count, got up anyway and continue to punch for the hell of it.
The Coyotes continue to shock the hockey world. Here is who is hurt:
Derek Stepan, Nick Schmaltz, Jason Demers, Antti Raanta, Michael Grabner, and Kyle Capobianco. Five skaters and a goalie. That just doesn’t happen.
They’re leading scorer, Clayton Keller, has 41 points in 65 games. Darcy Kuemper has won seven straight starts, allowing 11 goals. Brad Richardson just scored four goals in a game. Up is down, left is right, and a hot dog is a sandwich.
The Coyotes and Golden Knights play one more time (April 4) before the end of the season. If this pace keeps up, this will be the biggest battle in the desert since ... ever? There had to be something prominent between those two.
That’s why every game from here on out is a big one for the Golden Knights. As long as the Coyotes are somehow in the mix, Vegas doesn’t want to fall out and draw Winnipeg in the first round. We’ve hit the home stretch, folks.
How to watch
Time: 1 p.m. PT
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM