It was an honest question. I promise.
It’s been three games since coach Gerard Gallant went full regalia and shook up his lines. Max Pacioretty was moved to the top line with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith, while Jonathan Marchessault and Mark Stone were tasked with getting Cody Eakin out of whatever hockey purgatory he was coasting in.
It took three games, but these combinations seemed to work. Karlsson had two goals and an assist, Pacioretty had a goal and an assist, and the Vegas Golden Knights ended their five-game winless streak Sunday with a 6-0 victory against the Calgary Flames.
In those three games, Karlsson has returned to budding superstar form with seven points (four goals, three assists), and Pacioretty has consecutive multi-point games and six goals in his past eight games overall. While Reilly Smith has only two points in that stretch, the threat of him scoring with his team-leading 10 goals remains imminent.
So, that honest question: What’s the difference with Pacioretty on the line compared to Marchessault?
“Well, he’s a little bigger,” Karlsson tells me, referencing the 6-foot-2 Pacioretty to the 5-foot-9 Marchessault, resulting in mass hysterical laughter. “That’s the first thing that comes to mind.”
But then Karlsson, who leads the Golden Knights with 23 points, was more forthcoming about his new linemate Pacioretty, who now sits second on the team with 20 points.
“It’s a little difference,” he said. “He’s a right-handed, too. He’s got some other qualities. He’s got a really heavy shot. If we can get him to shoot the puck, we have a bigger chance to score, too.”
Moving Pacioretty with Karlsson and Smith was more to reward Pacioretty than demote Marchessault (currently on a five-game point streak and nine points in his past 10 games). The goals weren’t coming for Pacioretty after only scoring two in his first 14 games, but he had 10 assists and a bulk of them came on the primary side. He was beneficial to Stone’s hot start of 18 points in 15 games.
“It’s a message, right? That it’s not working with what we have right now,” Karlsson said. “We want to mix it up and you just want to play the best you can. So far it’s been working with Patch for us.”
But with Stone going cold (pun very much intended) with no points in six games and Paul Stastny being held without a point in eight straight games, Pacioretty was moved up to the two guys putting up points consistently.
Put the playmaker Karlsson with the shooter Pacioretty, and it’s almost as if the Golden Knights don’t miss a beat.
It’s not as much of the give-and-go that could make Pacioretty and Karlsson dangerous, but the threat makes it unique. Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic understands the danger. Karlsson could make the pass at any time, and Pacioretty’s quick release could also result in a goal here. This happened moments after Vegas scrambled to make a couple of defensive plays in front of Marc-Andre Fleury. Karlsson got a stick on a pass intended for Johnny Gaudreau that enabled Smith to make the pass off the boards and spring the 2-on-1.
Pacioretty’s goal at 8:13 of the third period isn’t as clean-cut as Karlsson’s first goal, but there’s still the pick-your-poison danger that Calgary has to deal with.
First: This was one of Nate Schmidt’s FOUR assists. Good way to break out of that slump he was on.
Second, two guys with speed like this is crazy. Once Schmidt puts the puck in play, Pacioretty and Karlsson are off to the races. Karlsson and Pacioretty take advantage of a flat-footed Oliver Kylington, who is trailing the play the moment they cross center ice. Rasmus Andersson is left all alone to either take on Pacioretty’s shot (which he does), or cut off Karlsson as he goes toward the net for a high-danger chance in front of Cam Talbot.
“That’s our game,” Pacioretty said. “We’re a fast team. We want to play fast. We all know it, it’s no secret. We talk about it all the time. If we’re able to get open and get it in our hands while we’re attacking with speed, it’s when we’re at our best.”
As for the other lines: Stastny scored a goal, Stone scored a goal, and Eakin showed he lives with a goal himself. As a result of this much-needed outburst, the Golden Knights are 6-2-0 against the Pacific Division this season.
Shuffling lines isn’t something in the Golden Knights’ lexicon unless drastic times are called for. It was drastic enough for Gallant, even if it resulted in two more losses, but the Golden Knights got back in the win column after losing seven of their past eight and three straight at home.
And for Pacioretty, who had been used to skating with Stone and Stastny and establishing that trio as the top line for Vegas, it took some adjusting.
“I really like the way we’re playing, our whole line,” Pacioretty said. “It was actually a lot different for me at first; a different style than when I was playing with Stastny and Stone — a little bit more north-south, trying to keep your speed going. It was a little bit different at first for me, but I think we’re doing a good job of reading off each other, and I think the three of us have done a pretty good job at just going north and trying to attack downhill with as much speed as possible.”
It’s not as much of Pacioretty saying he was playing with a slower line (though in hindsight it might be true). The 67-26-61 triad fed off being methodical and patient. That’s why Gallant can’t go away from those guys on the power play; it paid off with Stone’s goal. With Pacioretty and Karlsson, and eventually Smith when he gets going, it allows Karlsson to be the methodical playmaker that can kill defensemen with his speed while having the option to tee one up to Pacioretty instantly. Even with Smith and Marchessault, that was never an option.
It’s one game, and while this 6-0 victory killed three weeks of frustration for the Golden Knights, there’s the remainder of this homestand to tend to. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be at T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday in a game Vegas needs to win. Getting wins is the easy part; stringing them together has been the challenge.
Maybe the 67-71 duo is the formula that fixes everything.
“I don’t exactly know how to explain chemistry,” Karlsson said, “but it’s there right now and we’ll just try to use it as much as possible.”