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Devils at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas aims for bounce-back effort against New Jersey

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Let’s try this again.

NHL: New Jersey Devils at Vegas Golden Knights Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights have five home games remaining this season, including tonight’s matchup against the New Jersey Devils.

Following Edmonton’s 8-3 win last night against Nashville in which Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid combined for 10 points, the Knights are now just two points ahead in the Pacific Division standings with 80 points; however, the Oilers still hold a game in hand (and Vancouver will have three after tonight).

Every point counts, and tonight’s matchup cannot and must not be taken lightly.

The Devils (26-27-12) may be near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, but they have been playing well of late. The Devils are coming off a 3-0 shutout against the Ducks and have gone 5-1-2 in their last eight games and 6-2-2 in their last 10.

New Jersey has gotten excellent goaltending from MacKenzie Blackwood and (more recently) Cory Schneider. In fact, the two have made a combined 353 saves on their last 366 shots faced for a joint save percentage of .964 (though most of that was Blackwood).

New Jersey has had a disappointing season, especially compared to pre-season expectations following a busy and (seemingly) phenomenal offseason. However, the moves did not translate to on-ice results, so it has been somewhat of a lost season for most of the year.

The team traded Taylor Hall back in December and made many moves leading up to the trade deadline, shipping out Blake Coleman, captain Andy Greene, Wayne Simmonds, Sami Vatanen and Louis Domingue.

Another element of the failed season has been the play of rookie Jack Hughes, whom the Devils selected first overall in last year’s draft. Hughes has just seven goals and 21 points to go with a minus-24 rating in 57 games. Hughes is now skating on the top line with Nico Hischier (the first overall pick in 2017) and Kyle Palmieri, the team’s best player, but Hughes hasn’t been nearly as good as expected.

The same was true of Simmonds and remains true of defenseman P.K. Subban, who is having the worst offensive season of his career with just 15 points in 64 games (less than half as many points as he accrued last year in one fewer game).

One offseason addition that has worked out, however, is Nikita Gusev, a.k.a. the one that got away. Gusev hasn’t had a great year but has been effective for the Devils for most of the season and is riding a six-game point streak (2-7—9) into tonight’s game. Gusev has 12 goals and 42 points in 62 games and has settled into a two-way role with New Jersey. Though no one on the Devils’ roster has managed a Corsi For percentage above 50, Gusev’s 49.23 leads the team.

Vegas defeated New Jersey 4-3 earlier this season thanks to a hat-trick performance by Jonathan Marchessault. The Knights are 3-1-1 all-time against the Devils.

Vegas is coming off a disappointing 4-1 loss to the Kings, which snapped an eight-game winning streak and a seven-game winning streak on home ice.

One key area of focus for the Knights tonight must be a better start, which has been hard to come by for Vegas of late. The Knights found themselves trailing 2-0 less than eight minutes into the game Sunday night. It was the second game in a row in which Vegas surrendered a goal on the first shot.

Interestingly, the Devils have the second-worst win percentage when scoring first (.467), and the Devils and Knights have the same win percentage when trailing first (.343). But the slow starts must be dealt with in general as the Knights head into the final month of the season, especially since Mark Stone is now officially week-to-week.

Notably, Nicolas Roy remained on the second line in yesterday’s practice after getting the promotion during Sunday’s game.

However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Pete DeBoer to play around with the defensive pairings as well. Zach Whitecloud has made several costly mistakes over the last few games, and Nick Holden was on the ice for all four of Los Angeles’ goals the other night. That pair has struggled, so a change may be beneficial, though it doesn’t appear to be in the cards based on practice.

Regardless, at the end of the day, the Knights just need to go out and get the two points. It’s as simple as that.

There are only a handful of home games left this season, and though the Devils have been playing well in recent games, New Jersey is still a beatable opponent. With the way the Knights had been playing during their recent winning streak, any team should be a beatable opponent. Losing Stone is significant, but the Knights can’t afford to throw away the lead in the standings they worked so hard to establish, especially with Edmonton back on the rise.

Here are the projected lineups for both clubs (subject to change):

Golden Knights

Jonathan Marchessault — Paul StastnyReilly Smith
Max PaciorettyWilliam Karlsson — Nicolas Roy
Nick CousinsChandler StephensonBrandon Pirri
William CarrierTomas NosekRyan Reaves

Brayden McNabbNate Schmidt
Alec MartinezShea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud

Marc-Andre Fleury
Robin Lehner

Devils

Jack Hughes — Nico Hischier — Kyle Palmieri
Miles WoodTravis ZajacJoey Anderson
Jesper BrattPavel Zacha — Nikita Gusev
Kevin RooneyMichael McLeodJohn Hayden

Mirco MuellerP.K. Subban
Dakota MermisDamon Severson
Connor CarrickJosh Jacobs

MacKenzie Blackwood
Cory Schneider


How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM