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Capitals at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas must step up in order to step forward

The Golden Knights won the previous meeting against Washington 1-0.

Vegas Golden Knights v Washington Capitals Photo by John McCreary/NHLI via Getty Images

The Vegas Golden Knights continue to tempt fate with uninspiring and, in some cases, inexcusable losses with the season on the line.

Monday night’s 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils was one such wasted opportunity.

Tonight Vegas hosts the Washington Capitals, a team that has clinched a berth in the 2021-22 postseason.

It’s unclear if the Golden Knights will be able to do the same.

The desperation seems to come and go, but tonight will be a very tough test as the Capitals have won six of their last seven games, including a 3-2 win against the Avalanche on Monday.

The Golden Knights, on the other hand, enter tonight’s game having lost back-to-back contests: a 4-0 loss to the Oilers followed by the 3-2 decision against New Jersey.

Those two games followed a dominant 6-1 win against the Flames, one of the hottest teams in the league (pun intended).

As has been the case for months now, the Golden Knights continue to struggle with consistency. It has been one step forward, two steps back since the club had a December to remember.

But the Golden Knights have their backs against the walls.

Prior to the game against Edmonton, Vegas had a game in hand over the Kings and trailed by just one point. Now, Vegas trails Los Angeles by five points (but has a game in hand) and Dallas by four, though the Stars have a game in hand.

It’s possible the Golden Knights have already done enough damage to prevent them from reaching the second season for the first time in franchise history, but winning out is an essential factor in the equation if Vegas wants to have a chance.

The same was true on Monday against a non-playoff team, but Vegas dropped the ball anyway.

The game was tied at 1-1 going into the third period, but the Devils scored twice and took a 3-1 lead eight minutes into the final frame. Both goals were questionable, and while Chandler Stephenson scored to bring Vegas within one with 1:14 remaining, it was too little too late.

Andrew Hammond made 42 saves for New Jersey.

Robin Lehner made 25 on 28 shots for an .893 save percentage. Pete DeBoer called him out after the game.

He also called out the offense, as the team’s lone goal through the first 58 minutes of regulation came from the fourth line via Keegan Kolesar, who scored late in the second period.

This is the third straight season, all under DeBoer, in which the Golden Knights’ offense has disappeared at the end of the year, though usually it doesn’t happen until the later rounds of the playoffs.

Now the Knights might not even make it there.

Whether Mark Stone and/or Max Pacioretty are actually healthy remains to be seen, but the Golden Knights cannot expect to advance after scoring one goal in 118 minutes of hockey.

Even so, that doesn’t absolve the goaltending, and DeBoer’s comment on Lehner was telling.

“I think this time of year, you’re looking for your guy to be better than the guy at the other end,” he said. “And that wasn’t the case tonight.”

The Devils’ two third-period goals were questionable, to say the least.

The first saw Lehner nonchalantly reach for a shot that appeared to be going high; the puck hit his glove and fell into the slot, where the Devils collected it and cashed in.

Lehner’s reaction says it all.

On the eventual game-winning goal, it’s clear that Lehner completely lost track of the puck, as he was looking in the wrong direction even after the puck slid beneath him.

That simply can’t happen in the third period of a must-win game.

That’s why it would be shocking if Logan Thompson is not in the crease tonight; he has won five of his last six games and is the team’s best option in net.

He will face either Ilya Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek, both of whom have had their issues this season.

By the numbers: Goaltending

Goalie Team Record Goals-against average Save percentage Shutouts
Goalie Team Record Goals-against average Save percentage Shutouts
Samsonov Washington 23-10-4 2.97 .898 3
Vanecek Washington 19-11-5 2.67 .909 3
Thompson Vegas 8-5-0 2.55 .922 1
Lehner Vegas 23-17-2 2.83 .907 1

Samsonov has won six of his last seven starts but has finished with a save percentage below .900 in four of them, including a .789 after giving up four goals on 19 shots before being pulled in the Capitals’ 7-3 loss to Toronto last week.

Vanecek was in net for the Jan. 24 meeting against Vegas, a 1-0 road win for the Golden Knights; Vanecek stopped 29 of 30 shots but still took the loss. He has won his last two starts, giving up a combined six goals on 62 shots (.903). He was red-hot in early March, winning six straight starts, but he has given up three-plus goals in eight of his last 10 games and four-plus in four of them.

Thompson is coming off the 4-0 loss to Edmonton but had won each of his previous five starts. He recorded his first career shutout with a 22-save effort against Seattle on March 30.

Lehner has alternated wins and losses over his last 10 starts, but he broke the pattern with consecutive losses against Vancouver (5-4 in overtime) and New Jersey. He made 34 saves in Vegas’ win against Washington earlier this season.

As for the offense, Washington is led by captain Alex Ovechkin, who has 48 goals and 39 assists for 87 points in 74 games. Evgeny Kuznetsov is 12 points behind him (23-52—75), and the two have been Washington’s steady contributors in a season riddled with injuries (though not to the same extent as Vegas).

Defenseman John Carlson has 15 goals and 68 points in 72 games, including 13 in his last seven. Tom Wilson is second on the team in goals with 24 (24-28—52).

Jonathan Marchessault has a team-high 64 points (29-35—64) and is one goal shy of 30, while former Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson is six points behind with 18 goals and 58 points in 74 games. Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo are third and fourth with 46 and 41 points, respectively, and Evgenii Dadonov has 19 goals and 39 points in 73 contests.

The Capitals are averaging 3.39 goals per game this season, good for eighth overall, and they rank 19th with the extra man (20.2 percent). The penalty kill is clicking at 82.7 percent, good for 10th in the NHL.

By comparison, Vegas is averaging 3.14 goals per game (14) and has fallen all the way to 25th overall on the power play with a 16.8 percent conversion rate. The Vegas penalty kill is 21st overall (77.5 percent).

In the month of April, the Golden Knights’ power play has operated at an efficacy rate of 4.8 percent.

Yes, 4.8 percent.

Only three teams have been worse: Boston (3.6 percent without David Pastrnak) , Philadelphia (3.6 percent) and New Jersey (0 percent).

But no matter how they go in, the Golden Knights have to put pucks in the net if they want to keep their season alive.

Projected lineups

Vegas

Marchessault — Jack Eichel — Stone
Pacioretty — Stephenson — Dadonov
Mattias Janmark — William Karlsson — Michael Amadio
Jake Leschyshyn — Nicolas Roy — Kolesar

Ben Hutton — Pietrangelo*
Brayden McNabb — Theodore
Alec Martinez — Zach Whitecloud

Thompson
Lehner

*Dylan Coghlan took Pietrangelo’s spot in yesterday’s practice

Washington

Ovechkin — Kuznetsov — T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson — Nicklas Backstrom — Conor Sheary
Anthony Mantha — Lars Eller — Wilson
Johan Larsson — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway

Martin Fehervary — Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Trevor van Riemsdyk — Justin Schultz

Samsonov
Vanecek


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