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Sabres at Golden Knights Preview: Alex Tuch returns to Vegas in Knights’ final contest before All-Star break

Both Tuch and Peyton Krebs have found success with their new team.

New Jersey Devils v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights host the Buffalo Sabres tonight in Sin City in the final Knights game prior to the 2022 Honda NHL All-Star Weekend, which is set for Feb. 4-5 at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights are coming off one of the most difficult stretches of the season, but the fact that they came up with five of eight points against four top Eastern Conference teams is a good sign at the conclusion of a rough month.

After dropping five of the first six games (1-3-2) in January, the Knights went a much more respectable 3-1-1 and will look to build on that tonight against the Sabres in the team’s eighth matchup against an Eastern Conference club in 2022.

The Golden Knights have an all-time record of 4-2-0 against Buffalo. The last time these teams met was Feb. 28, 2020 in what was Robin Lehner’s Golden Knights debut. He made 32 saves to help Vegas extend its winning streak to eight games.

Lehner has won three of his last four starts and is coming off a 3-2 shootout victory against Tampa Bay. The former Sabres netminder (2015-2018) will need more support from teammates tonight, though, as the Knights recorded just one shot in the third period of that contest.

He is 18-12-1 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Notably, he picked up the team’s first shutout of the season with a 1-0 win in Washington.

It’s unclear who will be in the crease for Buffalo, as the team has experienced numerous setbacks in net.

Ukko-Pekko Luukkonen is injured, Michael Houser has been in COVID protocol and Malcolm Subban is expected to miss the remainder of the season.

Aaron Dell recently cleared waivers after receiving a three-game suspension for doing this, which was oddly reminiscent of a move he pulled on Mark Stone in 2019.

Craig Anderson and Dustin Tokarski hadn’t played since November when they split the back-to-back over the weekend; even so, they’re the likely options for tonight.

Anderson is eighth overall in goals-against average (2.28) and has gone 5-2-0 with a .929 save percentage in seven starts. Tokarski is 4-6-3 with a 3.27 goals-against average and .904 save percentage.

There’s even more uncertainty in the Sabres’ lineup, as Buffalo has experienced COVID testing issues and seems to encounter new injuries daily.

Tage Thompson and Casey Mittelstadt are the latest to go down.

Thompson leads the team in scoring with 14 goals and 29 points in 40 games, while Jeff Skinner and Rasmus Dahlin each have 28 (Skinner owns a team-high 16 goals). It has been a resurgent campaign for Kyle Okposo, who has eight goals and 24 points, good for fourth on the team.

If both Thompson and Mittelstadt are unavailable, top-line center duties likely will fall to Dylan Cozens, who is fifth on the team in scoring (11-10—21); he’ll be flanked by Skinner and a man by the name of Alex Tuch.

Tonight marks Tuch’s first game back in Vegas since getting dealt in the Jack Eichel trade in early November.

To say he has fit in well with his new club would be quite the understatement.

Shoulder surgery over the summer kept Tuch off the ice for six months, but he has been red-hot since joining the Sabres.

In fact, the 25-year-old power forward has four goals and 12 points in 12 games and has been thriving now that he’s finally been given top-line minutes.

Tuch, known for his rare blend of impressive speed, size and skill that he uses especially well in transition when splitting the defense, has already put his talent on full display. This includes his skating as well as his underrated and deceptive release.

He played 249 games with the Golden Knights after being gifted by former Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher in the expansion draft. He scored 61 goals and 139 points in that time, primarily in a third-line role, and added 19 goals and 33 points in 66 postseason games.

Tuch led the team in goals in the 2020 postseason with eight, scoring in four consecutive games, recording goals in four of seven games in the second-round series against Vancouver and lighting the lamp in both of the Knights’ two elimination wins; he also scored the game-winning goal in overtime that helped Vegas clinch the top seed in the round-robin tournament that year.

He has taken on a larger role in Buffalo, becoming a go-to player on the young roster, killing penalties and averaging more than 19 minutes of ice time per game. He’s making the most of his opportunity to explore and tap into his tremendous upside after being limited on Vegas’ deeper squad.

Containing Tuch will be a challenge for the Knights tonight, especially without Chandler Stephenson’s speed.

Peyton Krebs, the other player included in the package for Eichel, will face his former team as well.

Selected by Vegas in the first round (No. 17) of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Krebs recently scored the first goal of his career and added a second 4:24 later in a 6-3 win against Philadelphia on Jan. 22. He has four points in his last four games and five points in 10 games with the Sabres after recording one assist in 13 games with Vegas.

Krebs and Tuch have demonstrated early chemistry, and both play on the team’s top power-play unit. Krebs has assisted on two of Tuch’s four goals (including his first with Buffalo), and Tuch recorded a secondary helper on one of Krebs’ three tallies.

Like Subban, former Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller will miss tonight’s game due to injury, though Cody Eakin will be in the lineup. Eakin faced the Golden Knights back in 2020 but has yet to play at T-Mobile Arena since getting moved to Winnipeg a little over two years ago.

Eichel has made progress but is not ready to return ahead of tonight’s tilt; however, it’s possible he could be available when these clubs meet in Buffalo in early March.

The Knights and Sabres have enjoyed virtually identical power-play success at 19.8 percent and 19.7 percent, respectively. The Knights have a four-point advantage on the penalty kill with a 79.2 percent efficacy rate (compared to Buffalo’s 75.2).

Since Tuch’s debut on Dec. 29, Buffalo has operated at a 21.7 percent rate on the man-advantage but ranks 29th on the penalty kill (67.4 percent).

The opposite is true for the Knights.

In that same span, Vegas’ performance on the power play has declined, falling to 17.7 percent (23rd overall), while the team’s penalty kill has returned to top-10 form at 83.3 percent.

The Knights will be without defenseman Zach Whitecloud, while Nic Hague is currently listed as day-to-day; Alec Martinez remains out.

However, the recently re-upped Brayden McNabb will be on the blue line for the 45th time this season; he is one of just two Golden Knights (along with Keegan Kolesar) who has yet to miss a game this year. He was rewarded with a three-year extension the other day.

The forward lines remained the same in yesterday’s practice, with Nolan Patrick centering Max Pacioretty and Stone in place of Stephenson, who is in COVID protocol.

The Knights are currently tied with Anaheim for first place in the Pacific Division with 55 points, though the Knights have three games in hand, giving them the edge.

The team has gone 4-4-2 in its last 10 games and has struggled on home ice this season, going 13-10-2. That’s something the Knights will aim to change tonight.


How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN+/Hulu

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM


Polls

Poll

Poll 1: What’s your favorite Alex Tuch goal from his time in Vegas? (highlights below)

This poll is closed

  • 14%
    Spin-o-rama in outdoor game
    (1 vote)
  • 14%
    Batting the puck in — Game 5 vs. COL
    (1 vote)
  • 14%
    No-look shot to clinch top seed in bubble
    (1 vote)
  • 57%
    Splitting the D — Game 1 vs. SJS
    (4 votes)
  • 0%
    Other (explain in comments)
    (0 votes)
7 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Poll 2: Will Tuch light the lamp tonight in his return to Vegas?

This poll is closed

  • 92%
    Yes
    (13 votes)
  • 7%
    No
    (1 vote)
14 votes total Vote Now