The shortest of the months was the longest of the season for the Vegas Golden Knights, who gratefully welcome the turning of the calendar page despite the daunting task at hand.
The Golden Knights have to fight for a playoff spot, and there’s no guarantee they will earn one. The only sure thing at this point is that Vegas has 29 games with which to work. Every game becomes more and more significant; each turnover, each blown lead, each bad goal and each disappointing finish will be magnified in the coming weeks.
It’s easy to forget that this is an expansion franchise in just its fifth season, but the expectations for this club have been just as high as those for every other team in the NHL. In fact, this season started out as a Cup-or-bust scenario; if the Knights aren’t careful, they just might “bust” this season right into a lottery pick.
That may seem extreme considering Vegas’ past results, but this team isn’t playing Golden Knights hockey. At times, this team hasn’t played like one worthy of a postseason bid.
That doesn’t mean the talent isn’t there or that things won’t turn around. There is plenty of hockey left. But while there have been concerns surrounding this team for a while, there can be no more excuses for falling short, especially in winnable games. The Knights will have to elevate their play considerably in order to keep up against the more disciplined, structured and successful teams vying for the same prize.
The injury carousel has no sympathy for the Golden Knights this season, and the hits keep on coming. Pete DeBoer announced that Max Pacioretty and Mattias Janmark are not close to returning after suffering injuries against Arizona.
Robin Lehner was removed from injured reserve and is expected to get the start tonight; he has missed the last five games with an upper-body injury after giving up six goals on 33 shots in his last start, a 6-0 loss to Calgary.
Lehner is 19-13-1 with a 2.86 goals-against average and .907 save percentage with one shutout. He won his only start against the Sharks last season but is 2-6-0 against San Jose all-time.
Goaltending has been a bright spot during Vegas’ recent slump, which saw the team drop five of six and go 3-4-1 in February. Goaltending has not been the reason for Vegas’ struggles, though. Vegas needs Lehner to continue that trend; Logan Thompson was stellar when these teams met last week, and the Knights need everyone at their best in order to win.
The fact that the Knights stepped up and played well against the Avalanche should be a confidence booster for a club that has sent mixed signals regarding its ability to sustain similar compete levels on a nightly basis. The Knights came away without a point thanks to Colorado’s two third-period goals scored in the span of 26 seconds, but the Knights did play well, and it’s something they’ll look to build on tonight when they host the San Jose Sharks.
Tonight’s game will honor first responders.
From the Golden Knights:
During warmups, the Golden Knights will honor first responders by wearing specialty jerseys that will be signed and available for purchase through an online auction. Locker nameplates will be bundled with the jerseys. Warmup pucks will also be for sale after the game begins, with a limited number available for sale in arena outside Section 11. Fans can visit Responder.givesmart.com or text “Responder” to 76278. The auction will begin at 5:45 p.m. PT and conclude at the 10:00 minute mark of the third period.
As part of the recognition, the organization will be donating game tickets to members of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and Clark County Fire Department. Select first responders, including members of the North Las Vegas Police Department SWAT team, will be featured during the team’s various in-game activations at T-Mobile Arena. A limited run of merchandise for First Responders Night is available at The Arsenal at City National Arena.
It is a must-win contest for Vegas. For many reasons.
Not only have the Knights been dominant against the Sharks historically (17-1-3), but they picked up their 10th straight victory of the series with a 4-1 win in San Jose last week.
The Knights can’t afford to leave more points on the table, especially in matchups in which they are heavily favored.
The Sharks are in seventh place in the Pacific Division with 54 points in 53 games.
San Jose has won just two of its last 10 games (2-4-4) but is coming off a 3-1 win against Seattle in which James Reimer made 39 saves. Reimer was between the pipes in the Feb. 20 meeting between the Sharks and Knights; he made 31 saves on 34 shots and has gone 2-1-1 in four games since.
The team suffered a setback with the loss of Mario Ferraro, who will be out of commission for 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured fibula. San Jose also is without Erik Karlsson, among other players.
Timo Meier leads the team in scoring with 24 goals and 53 points; Tomas Hertl is second with 42 points, Logan Couture has 40 and Brent Burns has 37.
San Jose’s power play ranks 19th in the league at 19.7 percent; however, it’s the penalty kill that has been the Sharks’ special sauce this season. In fact, the Sharks have killed off 86.1 percent of opposition power plays, good for second overall in the league.
Vegas has moved up to 13th overall with an 80.1 percent effectiveness rate while shorthanded. The power play, which was a significant letdown the other night against Colorado, is clicking at an 18.5 percent rate, good for 21st.
The Knights caught a break last night with the help of the Boston Bruins, who handed the Kings a humbling 7-0 loss; a Vegas win tonight will bring the Knights within one point of second place, which would be an excellent way to start the final stretch of the 2021-22 campaign.
It’s possible that getting back into the rhythm of playing almost every other night will help the Knights focus; it will have to.
One player who will need to lead the way is Jack Eichel, who scored his first goal with the Golden Knights last week in San Jose, finishing the game with a goal and an assist and five shots. With Mark Stone on long-term injured reserve and Pacioretty out for the foreseeable future, Eichel will need to contribute.
But the player who really needs to step up is Alex Pietrangelo. He was a different player in the playoffs last season, and the Knights need him to lead by example and set the tone if they want to make a serious push for a playoff spot.
Evgenii Dadonov — Eichel — Chandler Stephenson
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Reilly Smith
William Carrier — Nicolas Roy — Michael Amadio
Jonas Rondbjerg — Brett Howden — Keegan Kolesar
Ben Hutton — Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nic Hague — Zach Whitecloud
Meier — Hertl — Alexander Barabonov
Ryan Dzingel — Couture — Noah Gregor
Scott Reedy — Nick Bonino — Matt Nieto
Jeffrey Viel — Jasper Weatherby — Jonah Gadjovich
Jacob Middleton — Burns
Marc-Edouard Vlasic — Nicolas Meloche
Radim Simek — Ryan Merkley
How to watch
Time: 7 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM