The month of February has been kind to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Nine wins. Nineteen points. Forty-six goals. First place in the Pacific Division.
It’s been an especially busy week for the Knights, who acquired Robin Lehner and Nick Cousins at the trade deadline and signed Nick Holden and William Carrier to contract extensions over the last few days.
Tonight the Knights will close out the month with a home matchup against the Buffalo Sabres with a chance to tie a franchise-high eight-game winning streak.
It will be easier said than done, but it’s certainly doable.
The first order of business will be to slow down Jack Eichel and linemates Victor Olofsson and Sam Reinhart. Vegas did a sound job of keeping Edmonton off the scoresheet the other night, but Connor McDavid had too many prime scoring chances, so that’s something that will need to be cleaned up ahead of tonight’s tilt.
EIchel is one of the most underrated players in the league, and there aren’t too many players more valuable to their teams. He has already set a career high in goals with 35, and he has 77 points through 62 games this season.
The 23-year-old captain is in the top 10 in most scoring categories, including even-strength points (50), power-play points (26) and points per game (1.24). His nine game-winning goals are second only to Leon Draisaitl, and his average ice time (22:01) is third among NHL forwards behind only Draisaitl and McDavid. He’s done all of this despite playing for a team that is 10 points out of a playoff spot.
He also hasn’t gotten much help.
Olofsson and Reinhart have a combined 90 points, but outside of Buffalo’s top line, the forwards have been ineffective and inconsistent all year.
The Sabres signed Jeff Skinner to an eight-year, $72 million contract this summer following his 40-goal campaign in 2018-19, but he has not lived up to the deal in the slightest. In fact, he has just 12 goals and 21 points in 53 games this year.
Buffalo is hopeful that recent additions Wayne Simmonds and Dominik Kahun will bolster the club’s middle six, perhaps providing a spark to get Skinner going.
The Sabres have gone 6-3-0 in their last nine games but are running out of time to gain ground in the standings. The deadline move for Simmonds, whom they got for a draft pick, indicates this is a team still fighting, though Buffalo has since fallen further out of the playoff picture. Even so, the Knights will be facing a determined team, so the game plan must remain the same.
Discipline is key. Special teams will be a factor. Vegas needs a strong 60-minute effort from everyone throughout the lineup, and the goaltending has to continue to be reliable.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to see Lehner get the start tonight against his former team, though it’s hard to argue with Fleury’s results of late. UPDATE: Lehner will make his Vegas debut tonight.
Either way, the Knights will look for a different result than the last time these teams met, as the Sabres came out on top in a 4-2 win in the January meeting.
Mark Stone will miss tonight’s game with a lower-body injury; there is no timetable for his return as the injury is still being evaluated. Chandler Stephenson will slide up to the second line, with Gage Quinney entering the lineup as the 12th forward.
Here are the projected lineups for both teams (subject to change):
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Max Pacioretty — William Karlsson — Chandler Stephenson
Tomas Nosek — Nick Cousins — Nicolas Roy
William Carrer — Gage Quinney — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
Victor Olofsson — Jack Eichel — Sam Reinhart
Dominik Kahun — Marcus Johansson — Jimmy Vesey
Jeff Skinner — Curtis Lazar — Wayne Simmonds
Zemgus Girgensons — Johan Larsson — Kyle Okposo
Brandon Montour — Rasmus Ristolainen
Rasmus Dahlin — Colin Miller
Jake McCabe — Henri Jokiharju