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Preview: Golden Knights host Avalanche in critical battle for division as Vegas targets 10th straight win

The Golden Knights can take a six-point lead in the West Division standings.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Colorado Avalanche Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche will go head to head tonight in a matchup that could end up determining the winner of the West Division.

The Knights currently sit four points ahead in the standings, but Colorado has a game in hand. The Avalanche had three April games rescheduled due to COVID-19 protocols; tonight will be the team’s fourth game since returning.

Colorado is coming off a three-game series against St. Louis, and the Blues helped Vegas by taking the final two meetings. Colorado went 18-1-2 prior to those losses — outscoring opponents 88-45 in that stretch — but enters tonight’s contest in the midst of a rare losing streak.

That is not the case for the Golden Knights.

Vegas has won nine in a row and is looking for its 10th straight victory, though tonight poses a legitimate threat to that streak.

If the Golden Knights are victorious, Vegas will have a six-point lead in the West Division standings, a true four-point cushion given Colorado’s game in hand. However, if Vegas’ winning streak comes to an end tonight at T-Mobile Arena, Colorado will be two points back with a game in hand. This could be a turning point in the season.

Of course, Minnesota has made an impressive push and has forced itself into the running, so this is no longer simply a two-man race. That being said, the Knights are five points ahead of the Wild, making Colorado the Knights’ primary challenger. Plus, strength of schedule comes into play.

The Avalanche have four games against both San Jose and Los Angeles in addition to the two against Vegas, whereas Minnesota’s nine remaining games consist of five games against St. Louis, two against Anaheim and two against the Knights. Vegas has two games against Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis and Arizona and will face San Jose in the final game of the season.

Since all teams have 9-10 games left to be played, tonight is not a “win or bust” situation for the Knights, but it should be and will be treated like the most important game of the season, and it will be a test for a Knights team that continues to find ways to win.

Colorado and Vegas have split the first six games of the season series, though one of Colorado’s losses came in overtime and one of Colorado’s wins was the infamous 11-hour outdoor debacle. All things considered, it has been a relatively even matchup so far, but the Avalanche haven’t been at full strength.

The same will be true tonight, as Colorado will be without superstar winger Mikko Rantanen, starting netminder Phillipp Grubauer, second-line winger Brandon Saad and rookie blueliner Bowen Byrum. General Manager Joe Sakic has assembled a team with great depth, however, and the Avalanche have been able to string together wins even while shorthanded. Only one player on the entire roster (Nazem Kadri) has suited up for all 46 games this year.

The Knights could be without Tomas Nosek and Nicolas Roy, while Reilly Smith and Keegan Kolesar will be game-time decisions.

One thing that will be new to the series is the goaltending matchup, as Grubauer has been the starter in all six matchups this year. It’s likely that the Avs will have deadline acquisition Devan Dubnyk patrolling the crease. Dubnyk went 0-3-1 in four games against Vegas as a member of the Sharks earlier this season, recording a 3.63 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. In his most recent start, he surrendered five goals on 37 shots, though he stopped 34 of 36 in his other start in Sin City.

As for his teammates, Nathan MacKinnon leads the way with five points against Vegas this season, while Devon Toews and Joonas Donskoi each have four.

For the Knights, Max Pacioretty has a team-leading five points against Colorado, while Alex Tuch and William Karlsson each have four.

Season series recap

  • Game 1 (2/14): Pacioretty scores the only goal of the game early in the second period; Marc-Andre Fleury records 30-save shutout in 1-0 Vegas win.
  • Game 2 (2/16): Vegas fights back from two one-goal deficits, making it a 2-2 game at 6:52 of the third. The game appears headed for overtime, but Kadri scores with 41 seconds left in regulation to stun the Knights with a 3-2 loss.
  • Game 3 (2/20): Samuel Girard gives Colorado an early 1-0 lead in a dominant first period for the Avs before the outdoor game is delayed for more than eight hours. Both teams score in the second period before Toews puts Colorado up by two. Tuch makes it a one-goal game just 1:14 later, but the Knights fall in a 3-2 loss.
  • Game 4 (2/22): Fleury shuts out the Avalanche for the second time, making 34 saves. Tuch continues his hot streak with two more goals as part of a three-goal second period for Vegas in a 3-0 win.
  • Game 5 (3/25): Pacioretty gives Vegas a 1-0 lead just 40 seconds into the first period, but the Knights surrender five unanswered goals, four of which come in the middle frame of the 5-1 defeat.
  • Game 6 (3/27): The Knights respond after the embarrassing loss and force extra time in a tight game. Pacioretty nets the game-winner just under two minutes into overtime for the 3-2 win.

What to watch for

  • Three of six games in the season series have resulted in a final score of 3-2, and four of six have been one-goal games. Fleury has recorded two shutouts, meaning the Knights have only won once while allowing a goal. That doesn’t leave much room for error, which could make special teams even more important than usual. The Knights have scored a power-play goal in three out of six games against the Avalanche, while Colorado only struck once on the man advantage, and it came in the team’s 5-1 blowout win. Through six games, Vegas has managed a power-play effectiveness rate of 17.7 percent, and the penalty kill — ranked first overall in the NHL — has been stellar (93.3 percent). Colorado has gone 1-for-15 (6.7 percent) on the power play and has killed off 82.4 percent of Vegas’ power plays. But staying out of the box should be high on the Knights’ list of priorities, no matter how well the penalty kill has performed. Colorado’s power play has clicked at 24 percent this season, and the Avs have a league-high 40 goals at 5-on-4, so it’s not something Vegas should test.
  • The Knights also need to put forth a full 60-minute effort. Colorado has game-breaking talent that can turn a game upside down in a flash. The Avalanche have scored quick-strike goals 63 seconds after a Vegas tally twice this season, and Colorado pulled off a stunning win with a late third-period goal that came out of nowhere. The Knights need to be consistent, play with patience and simplify their game. Trading high-danger chances is exciting to watch, but it’s not a sustainable strategy against Colorado. The Avalanche are first in the NHL in Corsi For percentage, shot share, scoring chance share, expected goal share, high-danger Corsi share and high-danger goal share. Though Vegas is near the top in almost every category, Colorado has been truly dominant. One thing working in Vegas’ favor is the fact that the remaining two games against Colorado will be played in the desert, where the Knights have put together an 18-4-2 record; the Avalanche, who have the exact same record on home ice, are 13-7-2 on the road.
  • Vegas is 6-3-0 on home ice even when giving up the first goal, but a strong start will be critical in tonight’s matchup, especially going up against shaky goaltending. Not surprisingly, getting the first goal has been a huge advantage for both teams this year; Colorado is 26-4-2 when lighting the lamp first, while Vegas is 25-2-2. But Colorado has really struggled playing from behind, especially in the third period. It hasn’t been an issue too often, as the Avalanche have thrived in the second period with a plus-33 goal differential. But the Avs have yet to record a win (or even a point) when trailing after two periods this season. The only other team that hasn’t won when trailing through 40 minutes is Detroit, though the Red Wings forced overtime once. Meanwhile, the third period has been Vegas’ best this season. The Knights have scored more third-period goals (61) than any other team and have given up the second-fewest (33).

How to watch

Time: 6:30 p.m.

TV: NBCSN

Radio: Fox Sports 98.7 FM/1340 AM