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Golden Knights at Coyotes Preview: Vegas aims for consecutive wins in front half of back-to-back

The Knights will host the Avalanche tomorrow night in Vegas to close out the month.

Vegas Golden Knights v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights are back in action with a road tilt tonight against the Arizona Coyotes and a home matchup against the Avalanche tomorrow night.

In all likelihood, this will be the Knights’ final game at Gila River Arena since the city of Glendale announced it will terminate its relationship with the Coyotes at the conclusion of this season.

The Knights have an all-time record of 15-6-0 against Arizona, which includes a 7-3-0 mark in Glendale.

The most notable of those wins was the second in franchise history, a 2-1 overtime victory back on Oct. 7, 2017.

The Knights trailed by one for most of the game but were able to tie it with just 72 seconds left in regulation before James Neal scored his third goal and second game-winning goal in two games. He struck 3:46 into extra time to give the Knights a thrilling victory and a 2-0-0 record; it was the first overtime goal in franchise history.

But back to 2021-22...

The Knights’ most recent matchup against the Coyotes was a 7-1 smackdown back in early December and kicked off the Knights’ strongest stretch of the season (10-2-0). Max Pacioretty scored twice, and Laurent Brossoit made 29 saves on 30 shots.

It’s unclear who will be in net for the Golden Knights in tonight’s contest, though.

Robin Lehner returned to practice and is considered day-to-day, but Pete DeBoer could roll any combination of Lehner, Brossoit and Logan Thompson, who is coming off his first career win and has been very strong in two starts this season.

For Arizona, Karel Vejmelka has taken over the crease this season and has had some impressive performances, particularly considering the lack of depth on the Coyotes’ roster. He currently sits at 7-21-1 with a 3.51 goals-against average, .900 save percentage and one shutout and is expected to start.

He has had plenty of tough nights, though.

He was in net in the Dec. 3 meeting against the Knights in which Vegas scored five goals at even strength and one each on the power play and while shorthanded. He has won just one of his last eight starts and has given up at least four goals in six of those contests; if he doesn’t get the nod, it’ll be Scott Wedgewood — who is 6-10-2 with a 3.10 goals-against average and .907 save percentage — between the pipes.

Update:

Lehner was placed on injured reserve prior to the game; tonight’s goalie matchup will be Brossoit vs. Wedgewood.

Needless to say, the Knights have to make the most of their opportunities tonight against a team that has struggled defensively and in net.

That’s true even if Vegas has to do so with a shorthanded lineup; Pete DeBoer said yesterday that several players could be out with the flu, and the team recalled forward Jake Leschyshyn ahead of tonight’s game.

But the time has run out for casual play.

The Knights can’t underestimate the Coyotes as an opponent, but this is a game Vegas needs to win considering how tight things are shaping up to be in the Pacific Division.

Arizona is not a team that was built to succeed this year; in fact, this team is aiming for a high draft pick, as the organization is undergoing a massive multi-year overhaul and rebuild. That was made clear by the many offseason moves that saw the Coyotes take on bad contracts in exchange for assets.

But that doesn’t mean Vegas’ former division opponent won’t be playing hard tonight and won’t be eager to collect its 14th win of the season.

The Coyotes have plenty of talent to do so despite their flimsy lineup.

Clayton Keller leads the team with 21 goals and 45 points in 51 games and is on pace to set new career highs across the board; no matter what, this will be his best season since his 65-point rookie campaign, and he is sure to surpass the 23-goal mark he reached that season.

Lawson Crouse is just one goal and two points shy of setting career highs in goals and points (16 and 26, respectively), while former fourth-line center Travis Boyd has already topped his previous highs and continues to step up in a significantly larger role.

Nick Schmaltz has 23 points in 32 games after missing more than a month of action earlier this season; he, Keller and Boyd make up the Coyotes’ top line, which has combined for 16 points in the last five games. Keller has goals in four straight and points in five straight, while Schmaltz has four goals and seven points in that span.

One of the team’s offseason acquisitions has worked in Arizona’s favor, as Shayne Gostisbehere has been a major contributor all year. The Coyotes are the worst team in the NHL, but he has been one of the bright spots. He’s enjoying a bounceback season and is a dynamic weapon on the ice for a team consisting of primarily bottom-six talent; Gostisbehere has eight goals and 30 points through 51 games, trailing only Keller and Phil Kessel (33) in points.

The Coyotes have made a few more trades of late, including shipping goaltender Carter Hutton to Toronto; in a separate trade with the Maple Leafs, Arizona landed a conditional second-round pick and forward Nick Ritchie in exchange for defenseman Ilya Lyubushkin as well as forward Ryan Dzingel, who then was waived.

This has paved the way for Vladislav Kolyachonok to compete for a spot on the Coyotes’ back end; he’s had a mixed bag, including an egregious turnover that led to a goal, but he picked up his first career point in the Coyotes’ 3-2 loss to Los Angeles Wednesday night.

The Coyotes could get Ritchie in the lineup for tonight’s matchup, but it will depend on his visa status, as the paperwork wasn’t finalized ahead of Wednesday’s clash with the Kings.

His new teammates will look to rely on more production from Keller and Schmaltz, who lead all current Coyotes in points in the all-time series against Vegas with 10 and eight, respectively. That being said, it is Schmaltz who has been the bigger threat, as he has eight points in 12 games, with seven of them coming in eight games last season.

For the Knights, Jonathan Marchessault leads the way with 18 points in 20 games, while Shea Theodore is the runner-up with 14 in 19. Reilly Smith has 13 in 20, while Max Pacioretty — who is actually second on the team in points per game in this series — has 12 in 15.

Not surprisingly, the worst team in the league has the worst power play in the league; despite featuring players like Keller, Kessel and Gostisbehere, the Coyotes’ man advantage is operating at just 11.9 percent (Vegas ranks 21st at 19.1 percent).

Similarly, the Arizona penalty kill is the second-worst in the league , killing off just 73.1 percent of opposing power plays and surrendering more power-play goals per game than any other team (45 in 51 games).

Since Jan. 1, the Coyotes have given up 16 goals while shorthanded; Vegas has yielded seven.

The Knights need to take advantage of the special teams mismatch. It continues to be an up-and-down part of Vegas’ game, though the addition of Jack Eichel should ultimately breathe new life into the power play. Eichel has only played a few games but has already shown flashes of the elite skill he brings to the table; his game will continue to improve game after game.

Thanks to Vancouver’s 7-1 win against Calgary last night, the Knights have a chance to pull within two points of the first-place Flames with a win tonight. Calgary would still have two games in hand, but this is essentially a must-win game as the Knights look to keep up with the other teams pushing for top spots in the standings.

The Kings, Oilers and Knights all have 51 games in the books, with Vegas sitting in second place with 62, Los Angeles trailing by one and Edmonton holding down the second wildcard slot with 59.

Calgary has just one game remaining this week/month, while the Knights and Oilers have two and the Kings have three.

The day-to-day movement in the standings isn’t overly relevant, but the Knights have 16 games in 30 days coming up in March, so tonight’s winnable game has to result in two points for the road team.

Even if the Knights win tonight, beating the Sharks and Coyotes doesn’t say all that much; the real test comes tomorrow against the Avs.

But points are points, and tonight’s are there for the taking.


How to watch

Time: 6:30 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM