Like the other teams in the round robin, the Golden Knights were in an interesting situation.
They weren’t playing for their lives like eight of their other Western Conference counterparts. Vegas could’ve taken the round robin off and got ready for the Stanley Cup Playoffs living with whatever seed they earned.
But the Golden Knights entered Edmonton with the mindset of wanting the No. 1 seed in the West, knowing they’d have to put a complete game together before their first-round series. Safe to say they did that, winning all three games, earning the top seed in the West, and setting up a date with the Chicago Blackhawks later this week.
“We came here with one goal and that’s to win the Stanley Cup,” said Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault. “We’ve got to take it one step at a time. We came here to take on every challenge ahead of us, and we did a good job. We wanted the first seed after the round robin, and we got it done.”
Vegas’ third consecutive postseason appearance is already a unique one, but there may not be a better chance for the Knights to win the Stanley Cup than this unorthodox stay in Edmonton.
Robin Lehner is the no-doubt starter for Game 1
Coach Peter DeBoer said tough decisions would follow the round robin. Giving two starts each to Robin Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury would determine the Game 1 starter.
Based on his two starts in the round robin, it’s clear the Lehner should get the call against the team that traded him to Vegas to start this series.
Lehner allowed three goals in both starts (against Dallas and Colorado) but none were really his fault. With the exception of both second periods, Lehner played stellar. He capped off the round robin with a 32-save performance against a Colorado team that combined for 13 goals in two games against the Golden Knights during the regular season.
Lehner was brought to Vegas to improve the quality behind Fleury, and he’s done that by winning his first five starts.
“Every game I get to play, I’ll do my best,” Lehner said. “Whenever they need me, they’ll need me. Marc is a world-class goaltender and has been one of the best in the league for a long time. I said it here when they traded for me at the deadline; I’m here whenever they need me.”
This is a big postseason for Lehner. He’s still an unrestricted free agent this upcoming offseason, and a deep playoff run will go a long way in getting the term and dollars he covets. Such a run could also put the pressure on the Golden Knights to make a move necessary to keep Lehner.
With how well he played, it’s only fair Lehner gets the call for Game 1.
But Marc-Andre Fleury will get his fair share
That isn’t to say Marc-Andre Fleury doesn’t deserve a fair chance. DeBoer said if the Golden Knights want to get to where they want to go, playing Fleury and Lehner will be crucial.
It’s not fair to judge Fleury off one round robin start and an exhibition game against the Arizona Coyotes. He made 21 saves against Arizona, but it was the first game for both teams in almost five months. Fleury made 12 saves on 16 shots against the Blues, but St. Louis capitalized on Grade-A chances while Vegas also had defensive miscues in their own end that did not help Fleury’s cause.
While all of that is true, there is pressure on Fleury to perform. He’s been up to the task as the Golden Knights’ goalie in the playoffs — 16-11, 2.36 goals-against average, .922 save percentage — but he hasn’t had someone looking over his shoulder until now ... no disrespect intended to Malcolm Subban.
“Whatever he decides, I’m good with,” Fleury said July 18. “At the end of the day, all that matters is winning, that’s why we are all here. Playoffs come and you have to be selfless and do what is right for the team. I just want to win, it doesn’t matter how it is. ... We’ll see how it goes.”
It might not be similar to Matt Murray in Pittsburgh, but Fleury needs to be up to the task when called upon to deliver, especially with the chance DeBoer will rotate.
The third line is still a question mark
A healthy Alex Tuch has paid dividends. His winning goal in overtime Saturday has him at three goals through three games. That’s the kind of production the Golden Knights need from their power forward.
At 5-on-5, though, Tuch’s line with Nick Cousins and Nicolas Roy is still suspect. Against Dallas, the trio registered only one shot on goal and allowed 11, thus leading to DeBoer shuffling the lines before a four-goal third period.
Against St. Louis, the third line was much better with five shots for and two against. Tuch scored twice against the Blues, but one was on the power play and the other came with Cousins and Roy not on the ice. Then against Colorado, the Roy line had only two shots for and seven against.
Overall, Roy, Cousins and Tuch couldn’t build off their outstanding exhibition stint where all three had at least two points. The Golden Knights are going to need that line to produce at both ends in the playoffs.
“We talked right from Day One of camp that we had to get our third line generating some offense,” DeBoer said. “We have to have three lines that are dangerous offensively. It’s starting to feel like we have that.”
Remember: This group might not be intact heading into Game 1. The reason why Cousins is on that line is because Max Pacioretty’s absence pushed Chandler Stephenson to the top line. Stephenson was at third-line left wing during training camp before Pacioretty was deemed unfit to play. With Pacioretty set to be ready for Game 1, fourth-line center might become a battle between Cousins and Tomas Nosek.
Zach Whitecloud plays like a veteran
Sometimes you forget Zach Whitecloud is only 23.
He scores his first NHL goal in the third period to tie a round robin game against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and you’d think he’s been there before.
“It’s definitely fun to contribute, even at a time like that,” Whitecloud said. “At the end of the day, you score your first one and you just got to get back to work right away. That’s what hockey is in a game like that, in a moment like that, an important game like that. It’s exciting, enjoy the moment, but get back to work right away.”
When he’s out there, the Golden Knights’ rookie defenseman plays more like a seasoned veteran than someone who should be wide-eyed in a playoff setting. He’s also earned the trust of DeBoer with time on the PK; he led the Golden Knights in shorthanded time on ice with a staggering 11:08. No other Vegas player reached 10 minutes.
Whitecloud isn’t known for his offensive prowess, but his tying goal against the Blues on Thursday showed he’s willing to get into the play. He and Nick Holden have developed into a solid stay-at-home third pairing. It’s not just the goal that’s eye-opening; Whitecloud is willing to block a blast from Nathan MacKinnon and come out of it unphased.
Even something as simple as his postgame answers to scoring his first NHL goal is something a 10-year vet would say. His attitude and approach to the game is why the Golden Knights gave him a two-year extension during the pause.
“I think composure is probably the best word I can use to describe his game,” DeBoer said. “And that’s rare. You don’t throw that term around a lot with young defensemen. That’s something you have to learn. He seems to have stepped in and had it right from Day One. When he combines some urgency and some physicality with that composure with the puck, he’s a very good defenseman at this level.”
Imagine this offense with Max Pacioretty
Oh, yeah. The Golden Knights did all of this without their leading scorer.
And yet here’s Vegas humming with 15 goals through three games. Imagine if the Golden Knights had Pacioretty in the fold, especially on the power play.
Vegas was 3-for-11 on the man advantage during the round robin, but could’ve been better had Pacioretty been camping out at his office, the right circle.
When Pacioretty is healthy, the Golden Knights are that much dangerous an offense. While Stephenson held his own on the top line, getting Pacioretty back on the top line with William Karlsson and Mark Stone is going to be the group that pushes Vegas offensively to a deep run.
“We talked when we got to training camp that we wanted to create the easiest path we could give ourselves,” DeBoer said. “This is the hardest trophy to win in pro sports to win, and the trail you have to go through and down in order to do it is very difficult. You want to give yourself the easiest path, and the easiest path for us was to come here and do what we did, which was win our round robin games and get the first seed.
“While we don’t have home-ice advantage, it gives you last change, it gives you the lowest seed every round to play against, and you hope that becomes an important piece because in the end, there’s very little that separates teams.”