Tonight’s game, the first regular-season meeting between the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche since they squared off in a six-game playoff series, was a matchup worthy of being circled on the calendars heading into the season.
That’s not really the case anymore.
The Knights find themselves fourth from the bottom in the NHL standings after going 1-4-0 to start the season.
That’s not exactly what was expected going into the 2021-22 campaign.
But “you know what” happens, and the Knights are struggling to overcome the early adversity.
To recap, the Golden Knights are without Mark Stone (IR), Max Pacioretty (LTIR), Alex Tuch (LTIR), Alec Martinez, Zach Whitecloud (IR) and Nolan Patrick, who was a late scratch on Sunday and remains day-to-day with an upper-body injury.
William Carrier, Nicolas Roy and Brett Howden also missed time with injuries, and Mattias Janmark missed three games in COVID protocol.
Through five games, that’s 24 man games lost. With several key players out long-term, that number will continue to climb.
It’s certainly a concern for the Knights, who have lost four consecutive games after defeating the Seattle Kraken in the season opener.
The latest was a 2-0 defeat Sunday night against the Islanders, concluding a winless three-game homestand during which Vegas scored a combined four goals and got outscored 10-4.
It’s difficult to win games without offense.
The Knights had a better showing on Sunday but ran into a hot goaltender in Ilya Sorokin, who made 42 saves, including a few critical pad stops on Keegan Kolesar.
But while the Knights may be getting their chances, they’re also getting outworked. In the last two games, the Knights have been out-hustled by teams skating in the second half of a back-to-back (and third game in four nights). Considering how shorthanded Vegas is, there can’t be any dips in the effort department.
The Knights have turned to other players in the wake of the injury debacle, but no one has really stepped up and taken the reins. The Misfits Line has scored one goal in three games since Stone and Pacioretty got hurt. Evgenii Dadonov has yet to score a goal as a Golden Knight. Alex Pietrangelo has zero points this season.
The coaches aren’t making the necessary adjustments, either.
This is the first time in Pete DeBoer’s tenure in Vegas that the team has lost four games in a row. The last time that happened (despite different circumstances), the coach paid the price for it. This time around, the blame is being put on the injuries.
While that’s valid, it’s more than just the injuries.
The games have been close, and the Knights have had a chance to win in the third periods, but Vegas has several glaring flaws in its game, and the same problems resurface night after night.
Robin Lehner had a strong game against the Islanders, but his rebound control led to the game-winning tally just over two minutes into the first period. Vegas wouldn’t have remained in the game if not for Lehner, though, and he made many fantastic saves to keep it a one-goal deficit for much of the game.
The last time he played in Colorado, however, he got rocked. He gave up seven goals in Game 1 in a disastrous all-around effort by the Knights.
He and the team will have to play a very disciplined game tonight.
He can’t leave juicy rebounds. This Avalanche team is way too talented to be given second chances.
Similarly, the Knights have to stop turning the puck over. Colorado has plenty of talent and arguably the best line in hockey; neutral-zone turnovers against breakout speed could have devastating results.
Every player has to be part of the solution. That may include a new face, as the Knights recalled Kaedan Korczak from the Henderson Silver Knights; if he makes his NHL debut tonight, he will be the ninth defenseman Vegas has used through six games.
Daniil Miromanov made his NHL debut the other night against the Islanders, recording two shots and a block in 13:55; he also helped prevent a goal with a key stick lift.
Though the Knights trail the Oilers by eight points in the Pacific Division standings, it has only been five games. That being said, if the Knights don’t turn things around, that number will only grow.
Keys to the game
Weather the storm
Colorado is 2-3-0 through five games. After defeating Chicago in the season opener, the Avalanche lost three straight games to the Blues, Capitals and Panthers before getting back in the win column with a shootout victory against Tampa Bay over the weekend.
Colorado is eager to get its season going and has a little extra to play for tonight after losing four straight games against Vegas in the playoffs. The Avs have under-performed thus far but will be motivated tonight.
The Knights have to withstand the initial surge. If the Knights let their guard down, Colorado could run away with it early.
Stick to structure
Considering the widespread injuries throughout Vegas’ lineup, the Knights won’t be able to get away with a run-and-gun battle against the speedy and skilled Avalanche. Trading chances at top speed can be problematic for most teams when facing the Avalanche, but it could be particularly costly for a depleted Knights roster.
The Knights should look to play a more structured game to try to contain Colorado’s high-flying offense and keep the game at a manageable pace.
This will be especially important considering Vegas is bleeding high-danger chances. In fact, the Knights gave up 11 high-danger chances in the first period alone on Sunday, and that continues to be an issue game after game.
Vegas improved things against Edmonton (at 5-on-5), but it was right back to old habits against the Isles. The Knights have given up the most high-danger chances against at 5-on-5 (14.51 per 60) and are second in high-danger goals against (2.38 per 60).
Cleaning things up in the defensive zone must be a top priority in Vegas’ gameplan tonight, especially since there hasn’t been any goal support to lean on.
The special teams situation is a fiasco.
The Knights are 0-for-11 on the power play to start the season. Vegas is the only team without a power-play goal; every other team has at least two.
The Knights are 0-for-28 going back to last season.
That is inexcusable. This has been a problem — with and without Stone and Pacioretty — for far too long. Having a full training camp and adding players like Dadonov and Patrick in the offseason was supposed to address the matter; it has not.
The Vegas penalty kill also hasn’t been up to snuff this season. It’s operating at 76.9 percent, good for 23rd in the league. The sample size is small (Vegas has been shorthanded a league-low 13 times), but the penalty kill used to be a source of momentum for the Golden Knights. The dominance from last season hasn’t carried over. Not yet, at least.
At this point, the special teams battle has been a lost cause every night. That needs to change. It should be an area of the game that helps Vegas compensate for the holes up front; after all, there is supposed to be an advantage to having an extra person on the ice. But Vegas makes the concept of man-advantage ambiguous at best, and that’s not a winning formula.
How to watch
Time: 5 p.m.
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM