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Ducks at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas fights to retain top seed in Pacific Division

The Vegas Golden Knights will close the book on 2021 with an afternoon tilt against the Anaheim Ducks today at T-Mobile Arena.

The Knights are coming off an impressive offensive outburst, which sparked a 6-3 win against the Kings.

Today’s game will pit the top two teams in the Pacific Division against one another.

The Knights (21-12-0) have a one-point lead over Anaheim (17-9-7); Vegas remains at the top of the Western Conference with a one-point edge over St. Louis as well, though the Blues have a game in hand.

The fact that either of these teams is at the top of the standings is somewhat surprising considering Vegas’ rough start and the overall expectations surrounding the Ducks headed into the season.

But here we are.

The Golden Knights will be forced to enter today’s battle without their best offensive weapon, as the Knights have been sucker-punched with yet another injury.

The club announced Thursday that Max Pacioretty is out indefinitely after undergoing successful wrist surgery. Pacioretty has been red-hot, on pace to shatter previous career highs with 12 goals and 21 points in 16 games. This is the second long-term injury he has suffered this season after missing 17 games with a broken foot.

It’s a major blow to a team that has been plagued by injuries all year, particularly with Mark Stone supposedly nursing an ongoing injury.

It’s expected that Alex Pietrangelo and Evgenii Dadonov will return to the lineup after missing two games in COVID-19 protocol. Dadonov likely will skate on the top line with Pacioretty and possibly Stone on the shelf.

Robin Lehner also remains day-to-day.

It’s possible Nolan Patrick will be able to suit up in today’s game; he has been out of the lineup since Vegas’ Oct. 22 matchup against Edmonton, limiting him to just four games as a Golden Knight. However, he has been a full participant in practice and appears to be nearing a return.

As for the Ducks, Anaheim could be without stud center Trevor Zegras as well as noted Vegas killer Max Comtois; additionally, Cam Fowler left the Ducks’ game on Wednesday and did not return, making him questionable for this afternoon.

The Ducks’ young players have taken significant steps forward this year, helping the Ducks be a competitive team on a nightly basis as well as a team that can offer John Gibson some much-deserved and must-needed goal support.

Ryan Getzlaf is having a resurgent season and leads the team in assists (20); up until a recent injury, he was one of the hottest players in the NHL. He has developed great chemistry with Troy Terry, who has been one of the biggest surprises of the season with 18 goals, tied for fifth in the NHL. His 30 points are a team-best as well.

But regardless of either team’s final lineup, the Knights will look to build on their 18-4-0 all-time record against the Ducks.

Today’s game will be the third meeting between these clubs this season; Vegas prevailed with a 5-4 shootout win at the end of October, while Anaheim came out on top in a wild 6-5 contest earlier this month.

Both games were high-scoring and tight, and both featured significant momentum swings.

In the Oct. 29 game, William Carrier’s first goal of the season put Vegas up 4-1 just under six minutes into the third period. However, the Knights proceeded to blow that lead, giving up three goals in the span of just 5:11. The Knights went on to win it in a shootout.

The Ducks were the ones with a 4-1 lead in the Dec. 1 battle, as Anaheim struck four times in the second period. Vegas got back-to-back shorthanded goals — one with 12 seconds remaining in the second period and the other just under two minutes into the third period — to make it 4-3.

The teams proceeded to exchange goals, but Anaheim never trailed. Two late goals in the final 64 seconds of regulation determined the outcome of the game, with Anaheim coming out on top.

That was one of only three losses for the Knights in December.

The season series thus far has been split; each team won a game, and each box score told a very different story. The first game featured eight goals scored at 5-on-5, while the second was defined by special teams.

In fact, four of five goals scored in the third period of the Dec. 1 game were power-play or shorthanded markers; the Knights scored two consecutive shorthanded goals, and following an even-strength goal by Jamie Drysdale, the remaining three tallies came on a man advantage. The Knights scored twice on the power play, while Anaheim scored on Vegas’ final power play of the game for the third shorthanded goal of the contest.

Vegas has improved significantly on the power play of late, but Pacioretty’s absence will be felt. Even when he wasn’t directly involved, he still posed a threat because of his shot, keeping defenders honest.

Plus, at some point the Knights’ recent success on the power play will catch up to them. The results have been remarkable, but the numbers don’t necessarily reflect a magically-improved power play.

But not to be underestimated is how much Anaheim has thrived on special teams this season. The Ducks are top-5 in both categories, managing an 85.9 percent success rate on the penalty kill, good for third overall in the NHL. That will make Vegas’ chances on the power play that much more difficult.

The Knights’ penalty killers will have their work cut out for them as well, as the Ducks have a 25.6 percent efficacy rate on the power play, good for fifth overall.

Due to recent performance, the Knights have climbed to 12th overall with a 20.7 percent conversion rate on the man advantage, while the penalty kill (77.9 percent) has dropped to 23rd.

The Knights had very little success on the power play prior to December, during which they’ve lit the lamp a league-best 12 times.

But the Knights are tied for first in the league with 82 goals scored at 5-on-5, which is the team’s true bread and butter. Anaheim has potted 63 goals at 5-on-5; though that’s still good for 11th in the NHL, it’s nearly a 20-goal drop.

Regardless of game strength, the Knights will need to pepper Anaheim with shots. Gibson returned to the lineup the other night and was in typical Gibson form, stopping 35 of 37 shots. He and Anthony Stolarz have been forced to make at least 34 saves in both games against the Knights this season, so getting pucks on net will be key for Vegas.

Tonight is the second part of a six-game homestand but marks the final game of the calendar year; Vegas will look to finish strong as the 2021 portion of the season comes to a close.

How to watch

Time: 12 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM