Hockey, you beautiful, agonizing and sometimes incomprehensible sport — welcome back. You’ve been missed.
It’s been nearly five months since the Vegas Golden Knights played the frozen biscuit game. You remember? Pepperidge Farm remembers. Shea Theodore’s game-winning goal in overtime gave Vegas a 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place.
Tonight, the Golden Knights return to Rogers Place to begin an abnormal journey which they hope ends with hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Amazing what that game became on March 9. The Golden Knights won their second Pacific Division title in three seasons, claimed the third best points percentage in the Western Conference, and the right to be one of the four teams to play in the round robin to determine seeding in the Western Conference. Three days later, the NHL paused due to COVID-19.
Now, July 30, 24 teams have landed in Toronto and Edmonton to complete the 2020 season and award the Stanley Cup. What’s known is the Golden Knights will be one of the 16 teams vying for hockey’s holy grail. What we don’t know is how the Golden Knights look after almost five months off.
Much like every team returning to play, the Golden Knights hum the same tune: They’ve had a great training camp, they look sharp, and the chemistry they’ve developed through this whole ordeal is unbreakable.
But Vegas can finally put that claim to the forefront in an exhibition contest against the Arizona Coyotes; a warmup, if you will, prior to the games that will matter more in the round robin beginning Monday.
It should be a good time for the Coyotes. They’re technically a playoff team for the first time in almost a decade (2012). Following this showcase against their division rivals, the Coyotes take on the Nashville Predators in a best-of-5 qualifying series to determine who goes to the round of 16. Instead, the Coyotes are dealing with front office drama after general manager John Chayka “quit” Sunday.
We’ll see if such drama impacts Arizona on the ice, especially pertaining to a former Hart Trophy winner they acquired in December, but this is why they play the game.
For the first time in almost five months, here are your keys to the game.
At time of writing, Golden Knights leading scorer Max Pacioretty is still here in Las Vegas tending to a minor injury sustained during training camp 2.0. Barring a miraculous quick private flight and conditioning, Pacioretty will not be available at puck drop.
Pacioretty returned to form after an injury-plagued first season with Vegas in 2019 and was on verge of a career-year. His 32 goals were the most since 2016-17, and his 66 points was one shy of tying his career-high set that same season. Then the pause came, but perhaps it was great timing; Pacioretty was set to be week-to-week with a lower-body injury had play resumed.
“It’s frustrating because of who it is,” said coach Peter DeBoer. “Max had an [lower-body] injury before [the pause], then got this fluke-kind of injury in camp. I’m sure there’s a frustration level on his part based on what he’s dealt with. As a coach, you know there’s going to be injuries.
“You’re not going to get through camp without something or someone getting injured. You just cross your fingers and hope it isn’t long-term, and it’s not with Max. I feel fortunate really with how healthy we got through camp with the virus and also with a health perspective and we’ll get Max back here soon.”
With Pacioretty out, it’s likely Chandler Stephenson fills the vacancy at left wing on the top line, skating with William Karlsson and Mark Stone. Nick Cousins held down the fort during the second week of camp, but the familiarity is there between Stephenson and Stone. In 41 games with Vegas since acquired from Washington on Dec. 2, Stephenson skated with Stone and Pacioretty for 21 games, recording 10 points in that stretch.
“We’re going to take all the time we can here, try some different guys with some different looks,” DeBoer said. “The exhibition game will be important. The nice thing is those two guys [Karlsson and Stone] are easy guys to play with, and there’s a long line of guys jumping in line for that job on their wing. It’s a good spot, and we’ve got a lot of options, and we’ll use all the time we have before we make a final decision.”
A challenge in an exhibition game
The Golden Knights went 2-1-0 against Arizona this season. Only one game saw the Coyotes as we know them now, with Taylor Hall in the fold.
But there’s one person that hasn’t seen the Coyotes since they traded for Hall: DeBoer. The San Jose Sharks played the Coyotes once before firing DeBoer on Dec. 11; a 4-2 win for San Jose on Nov. 30, DeBoer’s last as Sharks coach. Hall had an assist in his Arizona debut, in San Jose, six days after DeBoer was fired.
This will be the first time DeBoer sees a team that he’s normally familiar with, completely revamped. That will be a great challenge, especially with the Coyotes being a team that needs the momentum from this exhibition to carry over into their do-or-die series with the Predators.
“They’re a dangerous team. For me, the first two, three months of the season, they looked like a legitimate contender, and then the injuries hit, particularly to their goaltending,” DeBoer said. “When you lose great goaltending for any length of time, it changes your game all over the ice. I think they were a little victim of that. I think they’re a really dangerous team. They’re going to be a real tough out for somebody.”
Hall has been as advertised, scoring 27 points (10 goals, 17 assists) in 34 games, but the Coyotes went 13-17-4 in that stretch. Arizona lost all-star goalie Darcy Kuemper for two months to a lower-body injury, and were also without Christian Fischer, Michael Grabner and Jakob Chychrun prior to the pause.
Healthy, much like every other team in this tournament, the Coyotes can be dangerous if the dominoes fall the right way.
“They’re a fast team that’s going to test your decision making and how fast things are happening,” said Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. “Getting the tempo and speed and making decisions in a game-like atmosphere. Scrimmages for us only go so far, so to play a quick team like this is going to be good for our pace and momentum heading into the three games.”
Fleury, Lehner, and beyond
Marc-Andre Fleury is getting the start tonight. If the plan continues in motion as expected, Robin Lehner will man the crease Monday against the Dallas Stars.
DeBoer plans to split both goalies in the upcoming four games, and that could go a long way in determining who starts Game 1 of the first round. Lehner has been great since being traded to Vegas (3-0-0 with a 1.67 GAA and .940 save percentage) while Fleury has struggled since Lehner arrived (2-2-0 with a 2.51 GAA and .894 save percentage).
Eyes should be on Fleury with great interest. He’s started all 27 playoff games in Golden Knights history and has been spectacular (16-11-0, .922 save percentage, 2.37 GAA). But one slip-up could push Lehner, an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year, into the starter’s crease for as long as he’s willing to hold on to it.
“I think we have two starting goalies, and we’re going to need both guys if we go as deep as we want to go, and we feel we can go,” DeBoer said. “Both guys are going to play here.”
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m. (PT)
TV: NHL Network (will air locally, carrying Fox Sports Arizona feed), NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM