The Vegas Golden Knights need a win. Badly.
Thursday night’s 3-2 loss to Detroit marked the Golden Knights’ first three-game losing streak of the 2022-23 season.
The last two games — against Detroit and Dallas — have been particularly concerning given Vegas’ effort and compete level.
When they host the Washington Capitals tonight, the Golden Knights will need to play more inspired hockey as they wrap up this disastrous seven-game homestand during which Vegas has gone 2-4-0.
The last time the Golden Knights dropped four games in a row was at the start of last season; Vegas defeated Seattle in the home opener before falling badly to Los Angeles and then losing to St. Louis, Edmonton and the Islanders.
Vegas is a .500 team on home ice at 13-13-0, but losing four of six at a critical point in the season has yielded control of the Pacific Division based on points percentage to the Seattle Kraken, who also have 58 points but have a game in hand.
The two points up for grabs tonight are important, but the significance of cleaning up the way in which Vegas has played in recent games cannot be underestimated.
Against Dallas, the Golden Knights were borderline helpless, as the Stars were in control for almost the entirety of the game. It was the first time Vegas was held off the board all season, and the Golden Knights did not come particularly close to beating Jake Oettinger in Pete DeBoer’s return to Sin City.
Vegas’ effort against Detroit wasn’t much better, though the team did score two goals, one of which came in the final minute of regulation.
The fact that Jack Eichel got the primary helper on the late William Karlsson goal could be important, as his recent cold streak has come at the worst possible time. After recording three points Jan. 5 against Pittsburgh, Eichel has just two points in his last five games.
With Mark Stone and several other key players sidelined, it is past time for Eichel to step up as the star and leader he is supposed to be.
Perhaps today’s opponent will help him do so.
After all, he dazzled in overtime the last time these teams met, setting up Shea Theodore’s game-winner after scoring on the power play earlier in the game.
Shea Theo-vertime Winner pic.twitter.com/ESLjcfUrdi— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) November 2, 2022
It wasn’t the team’s best performance, but a persistent effort in the third period helped Vegas even things up at 2-2 with just under six minutes left in regulation; from there, Eichel and Theodore finished the job 95 seconds into overtime.
That was Vegas’ fifth straight win at the time, and it came two days after Eichel’s thrilling overtime goal against Connor Hellebuyck and the Jets.
The Capitals are coming off a 4-0 win against the Coyotes but have not won consecutive games this month, going 4-4-1 in January after scoring nine goals against Montreal on New Year’s Eve.
But this is a different Capitals team than the one that closed out 2022 with a bang.
Despite getting Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson back in the lineup after months-long absences due to significant injuries, the Capitals have faltered in recent games.
It’s partly an issue of chemistry, but the scoring has been down. Washington outscored its opponents 60-33 in December. The Capitals scored more than four goals nine times in that stretch, and they potted four-plus tallies 11 times in the 15 games before the two veterans returned.
Since then, it has been a wash at 15-15 over the last six games (3-3-0).
Backstrom has tallied three helpers in six games, while Wilson has two goals and an assist; the two have averaged 16:33 and 15:43, respectively.
Like the Golden Knights, the Capitals have experienced their fair share of significant injuries this season:
- Backstrom and Wilson missed the first 42 games of the year
- John Carlson is expected to be out until at least April after sustaining a frightening and grisly injury (warning: may be disturbing to some readers) Dec. 23 against Winnipeg
- T.J. Oshie has missed 17 games with multiple injuries
- Connor Brown played just four games before being ruled out for the year
- Defenseman Martin Fehervary missed 12 games
- Netminder Darcy Kuemper missed eight games in December after getting elbowed in the head by Calgary’s Tyler Toffoli.
In Kuemper’s absence, backup Charlie Lindgren helped the Capitals turn the season around in December, winning five straight and seven of eight. It was the first of two five-game winning streaks that month.
But the Golden Knights and Capitals have struggled of late, setting up a matchup between two teams desperately fighting to restore their December glory.
In regular-season play, the Golden Knights are 7-2-0 all-time against the Capitals; Vegas went 2-0-0 last year and won the previous meeting this season.
Evgeny Kuznetsov leads all Capitals skaters with three goals and 10 points in the all-time matchup. Alex Ovechkin is second with five goals (none on the power play) and seven points, and Backstrom has four goals and six points in eight games.
Alex Pietrangelo has averaged a team-high 1.33 points per game; unsurprisingly, the members of the Misfit Line lead the way in scoring with 17 combined points against Washington.
This season, former Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson leads the Golden Knights in points with 40; Reilly Smith has a team-best 18 goals.
For Washington, Ovechkin leads in both categories with 30 goals and 52 points in 48 games. Earlier this season, he moved into second place on the all-time goals list, surpassing Gordie Howe with his 802nd career goal.
Kuemper is 14-11-4 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .920 save percentage along with an NHL-best five shutouts; Lindgren is 11-6-2 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
Logan Thompson is 18-12-1 with a 2.72 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and two shutouts, while Adin Hill is 10-4-1 with a 2.65 goals-against average and .907 save percentage.
The Capitals’ power play ranks 18th, converting at a 21 percent clip; the penalty kill has been the stronger of the two units, killing off 81.5 percent of opponents’ power plays, which is good for eighth overall. In January, however, Washington’s power play has dropped to 15 percent (25th overall).
This month has seen the Golden Knights’ penalty kill go 14-for-16 for an 87.5 percent success rate, which ranks fourth among all clubs. After the best month of power-play production in franchise history, the Golden Knights have followed up that December performance with just two goals on 10 opportunities (20 percent) in seven games.
While 20 percent is nothing to scoff at, the fact that the Golden Knights have only had 10 power plays reflects the wavering effort in Vegas’ game. The club ranks 32nd in the league in opportunities per game as well as total power plays in January; for reference, the worst team in hockey (Chicago) has had 17 opportunities (31st) and 2.13 opportunities per game (30th). Interestingly, Vegas is 32nd on the year (2.63) and 31st in total power plays (121).
To say that things aren’t clicking in Vegas right now would be an absurd understatement.
The Golden Knights need to work through and get past whatever is stalling their forward progress, and they need to do so quickly.
Keys to the game
- Score first: Vegas has surrendered the first goal in five consecutive games, in six out of seven games in January and in nine of their last 10. Chasing games has led to sloppy puck management, turnovers and avoidable deficits.
- Clean exits: Exiting the defensive zone has been an ongoing struggle for the Golden Knights this season, but it has proven to be particularly problematic in recent games. It’s an area of Vegas’ game that needs to be cleaned up, as it affects play in all three zones.
- Draw penalties: Though the Capitals’ penalty kill has been strong this season, ranking eighth overall (81.5 percent), the Golden Knights need to win more battles, win more races and force Washington to make mistakes. Though the Vegas power play has not been good of late, it hasn’t had much of a chance to get into a rhythm. The Golden Knights need to outwork the Capitals, especially in the corners and in front of both nets.
- Hit the Jackpot: It’s time for Eichel to lead.
Chandler Stephenson — Jack Eichel — Michael Amadio
Reilly Smith — William Karlsson — Jonathan Marchessault
Jonas Rondbjerg — Byron Froese — Phil Kessel
Paul Cotter — Nicolas Roy — Keegan Kolesar
Nicolas Hague — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Kaedan Korczak
Alec Martinez — Ben Hutton
Alex Ovechkin — Dylan Strome — Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Sonny Milano — Nicklas Backstrom — Tom Wilson
Conor Sheary — Lars Eller — T.J. Oshie
Marcus Johansson — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Garnet Hathaway
Erik Gustafsson — Trevor van Riemsdyk
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Alexander Alexeyev — Martin Fehervary