There will be a new face behind the bench.
The Knights shocked the hockey world yesterday when they announced the firings of Gerard Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelly. The baffling move was even more surprising considering Peter DeBoer, former coach of the rival San Jose Sharks, was named as the replacement; he will make his coaching debut for the Knights tonight against the Senators.
But there’s another significant storyline that may get somewhat lost in the shuffle tonight, and that’s Mark Stone’s return to Ottawa.
The 27-year-old forward faced his former team in Vegas earlier this season but has yet to return to Ottawa since getting dealt at last year’s trade deadline. It’s sure to be an emotional night for Stone, who was drafted by Ottawa in the sixth round (No. 178) of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft before spending parts of seven seasons with the Sens.
He hit the 20-goal mark in five straight seasons and topped 60 points four times. He was a key cog in the team’s memorable late-season push in 2014-15 as Ottawa went 23-4-4 to close out the season en route to a playoff berth. Stone scored two goals in the final game of the season to clinch it for Ottawa, and he finished the regular season with points in nine straight. He also helped the Senators come within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2017.
Stone was one of several key pieces traded by the Senators last year as part of a rebuild. He was unable to reach an agreement on an extension with Ottawa, which ultimately necessitated the trade; he subsequently inked an eight-year, $76 million deal with the Knights.
His return is sure to elicit mixed emotions from Senators fans.
In a way, the same can be said about Vegas fans with regard to DeBoer’s debut considering how beloved and respected Gallant was/is.
But while the last 24 hours have been a whirlwind, there are two points on the table tonight that the Knights could really use, and both Stone and DeBoer will be determined to make sure the Knights do not leave empty-handed.
Vegas is currently out of a playoff spot after losing four straight games but is tied with both wildcard teams, Vancouver and Winnipeg, with 54 points. The four teams ahead of the Knights (not including Arizona) have at least one game in hand, but Vegas is just three points out of first place in the Pacific Division.
The Knights will face a young Senators team coming off a 3-2 overtime loss to Chicago, their eighth straight loss. Ottawa has gone 5-7-7 over the last six weeks and 1-4-5 over the last 10 games, though the games have been much closer of late. In fact, the Senators have gone to extra time in three straight games, losing to Detroit in a shootout and to Montreal and Chicago in overtime.
Anthony Duclair leads the Senators in scoring with 21 goals and 32 points, and Thomas Chabot has been a true workhorse for Ottawa this season. He is third in the NHL in total ice time (the two players above him have played in two more games) but leads the entire NHL in average ice time with 26:37 per game.
In the last month, however, he has averaged over 30 minutes per game, and he played nearly 38 minutes (37:50) Dec. 17 against Tampa Bay, the most anyone has played in a single game this season.
His usage may start to normalize a bit now that the Senators’ defense corps is finally healthy, but the 22-year-old, who signed an eight-year extension this past summer, is a key part of this club.
The same is true of former fourth-overall pick Brady Tkachuk, who lived with Stone last season. Among players who have played in at least 10 games, Tkachuk leads the Senators in Corsi per 60 (62.92), shots per 60 (35.9), expected goals per 60 (3.01), scoring chances per 60 (32.01) and high-danger Corsi per 60 (14.87).
Like the Senators, the Knights are in the midst of a losing streak, as Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to Buffalo marked Vegas’ fourth straight loss. Vegas has given up 24 goals in six games thus far in 2020, eight of which have come on the man advantage. Fortunately for the Knights, Ottawa’s power play ranks 31st in the NHL at a conversion rate of just 11.3 percent.
Though Vegas was unable to come away victorious Tuesday against Buffalo, the Knights scored the first goal of the game for the first time in 2020 and did not trail by three goals for the first time in five games, which was an improvement. At the very least, that’s something that must carry over into tonight’s tilt against the Senators.
Though all eyes will be on Stone and DeBoer, another player to watch tonight is Jonathan Marchessault, who has a history of heroics against the Senators. Marchessault scored the game-winning overtime goal on a penalty shot against Ottawa last year (after getting hooked by none other than Stone), and he scored the game-winning shootout goal in Vegas’ 3-2 win over the Senators earlier this season.
The Knights have three games before the bye week and All-Star break, and they can ill afford to perpetuate this losing streak. It will be interesting to see how the players respond to the first coaching change in franchise history and whether they are able to turn things around, starting tonight in Ottawa.
How to watch
Time: 4:30 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM