The Vegas Golden Knights are coming off a particularly difficult loss and continue to fail to take advantage of opportunities to collect points.
Following a thrilling last-second win against the Ottawa Senators, it seemed as though things were finally picking up for the Knights.
However, a flat performance Tuesday in Philadelphia said otherwise.
The Golden Knights kick off a back-to-back tonight against the Sabres as Jack Eichel makes his highly-anticipated return to Buffalo; the Knights will take on the Penguins tomorrow in Pittsburgh.
But taking center stage tonight is Eichel.
The superstar center was traded to Vegas on Nov. 4 in exchange for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs and two draft picks; he has played 10 games with his new club, recording three goals and seven points in that time.
Despite the friction between Eichel and the Sabres organization, Eichel was emphatic in interviews yesterday that he harbors no resentment or “hard feelings” about how things played out in Buffalo.
Eichel scored 139 goals, 216 assists and 355 points in 375 games with the Sabres and was named team captain at 21. That captaincy was later stripped, and Eichel was traded less than two months later, largely because of a disagreement over the best surgical option to treat his neck injury.
It’s uncertain what type of reception he’ll receive from Sabres fans, but Eichel is prepared for an “awkward” night against his former team. Once the dust settles, he’ll be able to focus on helping Vegas with the task at hand.
The key to tonight’s game is simple: win. In any way.
Ideally, the Knights will play a complete 60-minute effort, roll four lines, continue to show improvements on the power play and rediscover their former swagger.
But nothing about how the Knights have played over the last two-plus months indicates that that’s in the realm of possibility.
Even so, whether it’s 10-0, 2-1 or a 5-4 come-from-behind shootout victory, the Knights just have to finish the night with more goals than the Sabres. That will be easier said than done given Vegas’ offensive output in recent games.
The Knights scored one goal in 59:54 against the Senators.
Not good enough.
Vegas scored one goal in 60 minutes against the Flyers.
Not good enough.
The Knights recorded 48 shots against Philadelphia, but it didn’t get them anywhere. Instead, they lost to a team that had won just four of its previous 25 games.
Vegas’ opponent in tonight’s matchup has won just two of its last 10 games.
The Sabres are coming off a particularly rough 6-1 loss to Florida; Tuch, who has known Eichel since they were kids, seems to be leading the charge in convincing his teammates to approach tonight’s game as though it is a playoff game.
Buffalo plans to take this seriously.
The Knights must do the same.
Tage Thompson has 23 goals and 42 points in 54 games this season; he has just one assist in his last three games but was on an absolute tear going back to late December. Jeff Skinner, Eichel’s former linemate, also has 23 goals and is second on the team in scoring with 41 points. Former first overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, a defenseman, has eight goals and 37 points.
Craig Anderson likely will be between the pipes; Sabres coach Don Granato indicated yesterday that he was leaning in that direction. Anderson is 8-8-0 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .901 save percentage and is seeking his 300th career win. He has lost five of his last seven.
There will be plenty of familiar faces when these teams take the ice, starting with Tuch and Krebs. Tuch is skating on the top line, and the two former Knights have a combined 33 points with Buffalo this season. Cody Eakin and possibly Colin Miller (who has been out of the lineup but practiced yesterday) are former Misfits as well.
In addition to Miller, the Sabres could get defensemen Henri Jokiharju and/or Will Butcher back in the lineup, and forward Zemgus Girgensons is a possibility as well.
Buffalo ranks 19th on the power play with a respectable success rate of 19.8 percent; the Knights will look to take advantage of a weaker penalty kill, however, which has operated at 75.7 percent, good for 27th overall.
The focus tonight will be on Eichel, but eventually this will become another regular-season contest.
“It’s hockey, and when the puck drops, you get a shift under your belt, I think it just becomes a game,” Eichel said.
This team lost its identity somewhere along the way, and the Pacific Division picture gets murkier by the day.
The Knights need to start to turn things around by building some confidence; it should help that they won the previous meeting between these teams back on Feb. 1, coming away with a 5-2 victory with goals from five different players.
Even so, the Knights seem to be going out of their way to lose winnable games and leave critical points on the table.
This is the first time this franchise has been at risk of missing the playoffs, and the Knights have just 24 games remaining in the regular season; every point counts.
Tonight is a must-win game.
The Knights need to be able to generate offensive opportunities that aren’t created in transition. The Knights have to forecheck. Vegas has to continue to move the puck on the power play. The Knights could use a better performance in net as well, but regardless of who starts, the offense has to go out and win a game.
Update: Robin Lehner has returned to Vegas for testing due to a lower-body injury. Laurent Brossoit will start tonight in Buffalo. Reilly Smith will not play tonight.
Edmonton’s 4-3 overtime win against Washington last night brought the Oilers within two points of the Knights, who trail Los Angeles by three.
It’s time for Vegas to take control of its own destiny.
It should be a manageable feat against a team that has 44 points, good for 29th in the NHL standings.
But there are no easy wins in today’s NHL; the Knights just have to find a way to get it done.
Lehner is back in Vegas, so Brossoit will get the nod tonight. Brett Howden is officially on injured reserve, and Smith is out.
Max Pacioretty — Eichel — Nicolas Roy
Jonathan Marchessault — William Karlsson — Evgenii Dadonov
William Carrier — Chandler Stephenson — Michael Amadio
Jonas Rondbjerg — Jake Leschyshyn — Keegan Kolesar
Nic Hague — Alex Pietrangelo
Shea Theodore — Zach Whitecloud
Ben Hutton — Dylan Coghlan
Skinner — Thompson — Tuch
Krebs — Dylan Cozens — Vinnie Hinostroza
Victor Olofsson — Casey Mittelstadt — Kyle Okposo
Rasmus Asplund — Cody Eakin — John Hayden
Dahlin — Jokiharju
Mattias Samuelsson — Jacob Bryson
Robert Hagg — Casey Fitzgerald
How to watch
Time: 4 p.m.
TV: ESPN+, Hulu
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM