Tonight is the night.
The Jack Eichel era is upon us.
Eichel was acquired from Buffalo on Nov. 4 in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and two draft picks. He underwent successful neck surgery Nov. 12 and joined the team in a non-contact sweater in mid-January. His remarkable comeback will be official when the puck drops tonight.
After six years in Buffalo, the atmosphere in T-Mobile Arena should be special for the 25-year-old, who is set to skate on the top line with Max Pacioretty and Evgenii Dadonov.
Eichel may be the most dynamic player the Knights have ever had; he has been a standout performer since getting drafted second overall back in 2015 and has longed for a chance to play for a competitive team.
In fact, Eichel has yet to play a single second of playoff hockey. Needless to say, he will be eager to help the Knights secure a postseason spot and take another run at Lord Stanley’s prize.
For now, however, it’s one shift at a time.
That’s especially true since tonight’s opponent is the best team in the NHL.
Colorado has the most points (72) and the best points percentage (.783) in the league with a 34-9-4 overall record in 47 games.
The Knights (28-17-3 through 48 games), meanwhile, have conceded first place in the Pacific Division to the Calgary Flames, who moved ahead of Vegas last night after securing a 6-2 win against Columbus; Calgary still has two games in hand and also plays tonight (against Anaheim).
The Knights are 6-5-3 in 2022; the Avalanche are 17-1-2.
Though the Knights have had a week off and Colorado played last night, Colorado is 4-0-1 in the second half of back-to-back sets this season, outscoring its opponents 23-9.
Tonight is not a back-to-back for Vegas, but last Wednesday’s game was, and it was a dumpster fire the Knights are hoping to put behind them.
The Knights had one of their worst efforts of the season and were fortunate to lose by just six goals; they will have to be drastically better if they hope to stay in tonight’s game.
The Knights are 8-8-1 against Colorado in the all-time regular-season series, though these teams aren’t as evenly matched as they may have been at times in recent years; plus, it’s clear that Colorado has not experienced the same inconsistency issues that continue to plague Vegas.
In fact, since Nov. 11, the Avalanche have gone an improbable and absurd 30-4-3.
But last night’s 4-1 loss to Dallas snapped a 19-game points streak and was the team’s first regulation loss in nearly two months (Dec. 16) as well as just the third regulation loss the team has suffered on home ice this season. One of the other two came against Vegas when the Knights secured a 3-1 victory in Denver back on Oct. 26.
Home-ice hasn’t been everything for the Avalanche, though, as Colorado has gone 11-3-2 on the road during the 30-4-3 stretch. In that three-month period, the Avalanche have not lost consecutive games.
As such, Vegas could be facing an especially hungry team tonight, which doesn’t bode well for a shorthanded Knights squad.
Vegas will be without Mark Stone as well as Robin Lehner.
Stone was moved to long-term injured reserve (which is what allowed the Knights to activate Eichel’s $10 million cap hit without making a trade), while Lehner is still being evaluated for an upper-body injury, according to Pete DeBoer.
Kelly McCrimmon put an end to rumors regarding Vegas’ possible interest in Marc-Andre Fleury, but Lehner’s status moving forward is still unknown.
No matter what, though, Eichel’s debut is the main storyline in tonight’s contest.
It has been 11 months since he last played (March 7, 2021). He underwent successful artificial disk replacement surgery on Nov. 12, eight days after getting acquired by Vegas. He was the first NHL player to undergo that procedure.
That’s partly why DeBoer has attempted to maintain reasonable expectations for Vegas’ newest player.
DeBoer on Eichel: He's a special player. I have no doubt he's going to return to a really high level, but how long that takes, I don't know. He's been through a groundbreaking surgery for hockey and missed a lot of time. pic.twitter.com/ozaL2c9fGa— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) February 15, 2022
Even so, it’s an exciting time for the Golden Knights, and it’s rare that a player of that caliber returns from such a serious injury playing for a different team.
The results may not come right away, but the fact that he’ll have several months to reacclimate to the NHL pace before a potential postseason run is encouraging.
Eichel has 139 goals and 355 points in 375 career games, with 127 of those points coming on the man advantage.
His 2020-21 campaign was cut short due to injury, leaving him with two goals and 18 points in 21 games. However, Eichel has scored at least 24 goals in every other season, with a career-high 36 coming in 2019-20.
With the new-look top line for Vegas, Chandler Stephenson will drop to the third line, where he’ll center Jonathan Marchessault and Nic Roy; Mattias Janmark is expected to take Marchessault’s spot on the Misfit Line.
It will be an important opportunity for players like Dadonov and Janmark to showcase their abilities in bigger roles, especially as two players who could be dealt depending on how things unfold leading up to the trade deadline.
That being said, DeBoer could change things up during the game, especially considering how much talent Colorado ices on a nightly basis.
The top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog is still one of the best in the NHL, though it’s Nazem Kadri who leads the team in scoring with 62 points. Rantanen is second with 55, Landeskog is third with 48 and defenseman Cale Makar comes in at No. 4 with 44 points in 32 games.
As always, Makar’s game-breaking ability is something the Knights will have to at least partially contain, but the Avs’ high-pace style could be an issue for Vegas. Calgary dominated the neutral zone in last week’s 6-0 disastrous loss; as a result, Vegas got burned many times. The Knights will be playing with fire if they give Colorado free entries or open lanes up the ice.
Alex Pietrangelo’s infamous “oh boy” reaction to MacKinnon’s speed remains applicable, even if MacKinnon is just coming back from a concussion and broken nose.
MacKinnon leads both teams with 15 points in 17 career games against the Knights, while Kadri leads all active Avalanche players with four goals (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare also had four in his time with the Avs).
For Vegas, Marchessault and William Karlsson have 11 and 10 points in 17 games, respectively, while Pacioretty has nine in 10. Pacioretty and Marchessault have seven and six goals, respectively.
The Avalanche rank 10th on the power play (23.8 percent), while the Knights are 19th at 19.5 percent. Interestingly, Colorado has yet to score on the power play this month, going a combined 0-for-12 over the last four games. But that’s not something the Knights should test, especially with a penalty kill operating at 79.6 percent (17th); Colorado ranks 22nd with a 76.8 percent efficacy rate.
In net, Laurent Brossoit likely will get the nod tonight for Vegas.
Brossoit is coming off his first shutout as a member of the Golden Knights and has had solid numbers this season, going 9-3-2 with a 2.66 goals-against average and .905 save percentage.
The Avalanche should roll with Darcy Kuemper since Pavel Francouz manned the crease last night.
Kuemper is 23-5-2 with a 2.45 goals-against average and .918 save percentage along with two shutouts. He holds a career record of 4-5-3 against Vegas, but that is not a reflection on his play but rather on the teams he was backstopping. Kuemper has managed a 2.24 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in his career against the Knights.
The Knights faced a difficult goalie in Jacob Markstrom last week, but Markstrom wasn’t forced to make many stops, as the Knights were outplayed the entire night.
That has to change for tonight’s contest.
The Avalanche can score at will, so the Knights must find a way to capitalize on chances and light the lamp in order to keep up with the high-flying offense Colorado boasts.
Vegas’ 6-0 loss to Calgary may have been a week ago, but the embarrassing defeat is one the Knights would like to put behind them. Vegas has five games remaining in February, and the Knights need every point they can get.
It’ll be a tall order for the Knights tonight, but it’s a momentous game in franchise history considering the magnitude of adding a player like Eichel to the mix.
He could be the missing piece, but he doesn’t need to demonstrate that tonight. Tonight is but a beginning to what Vegas hopes will be a storybook journey.
Pacioretty — Eichel — Dadonov
Janmark — Karlsson — Reilly Smith
Marchessault — Stephenson — Roy
William Carrier — Brett Howden — Nolan Patrick
Nic Hague — Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Ben Hutton — Dylan Coghlan
Landeskog — MacKinnon — Rantanen
Valeri Nichushkin — Kadri — Andre Burakovsky
J.T. Compher — Alex Newhook — Logan O’Connor
Darren Helm — Tyson Jost — Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Devon Toews — Makar
Jack Johnson — Samuel Girard
Erik Johnson — Kurtis MacDermid
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m.
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM