The season-defining stretch for the Golden Knights started Valentine’s Day Eve.
Vegas was starting a five-game homestand that I long called “murderer’s row.” Four of those five opponents were playoff teams last season, and one (Florida) was on the verge of a playoff berth. If the Golden Knights didn’t come out of murderer’s row with at least three wins, the season would be in doubt; they were three points behind the Vancouver Canucks for first place in the Pacific Division and teetering between third place and a wild card spot.
Vegas lost three of four coming in while still in search of an identity one month into the Peter DeBoer era.
That game didn’t cement the Golden Knights’ identity, but it set in motion the reason why they’re in the round robin. Vegas won 6-5 in overtime in one of the weirder games this season. That started a franchise-record-tying eight-game winning streak for the Golden Knights. They cleared murderer’s row with wins against the Lightning (ending Tampa’s 11-game winning streak and 13-game point streak), the Capitals and the Islanders.
The Golden Knights have proven they can beat the champs after taking two of three during the regular season. This meeting is more paramount when the teams meet in their second round-robin game at Rogers Place on Thursday.
“It’s not a lose-and-you’re-out. It’s lose and you don’t drop in the seeding,” said Golden Knights defenseman Nick Holden. “I think the focus from the coaches down to us coming into this was we want first place. We don’t want to lose so in that sense, that’s how we’re playing.”
“There’s no real surprises.”
The round-robin games have the makeup of glorified scrimmages. The intensity might not be evident to a best-of-5 series in the qualifying round. But the Golden Knights have made it clear they want the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
If the Golden Knights defeat the Blues on Thursday, that sets up a deciding game Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche. By way of Vegas and Colorado dispatching the Dallas Stars through two games, Vegas can’t finish any worst than third, no matter the outcome.
But the champs are just that for a reason. The Blues play a heavy game and will whoop teams given the chance. Their top six is stacked with reigning Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly leading the charge; former Vegas forward David Perron had a career-year (60 points) while Brayden Schenn (25 goals) and Jaden Schwartz (57 points) manned the middle.
The defense burns teams at both ends. Alex Pietrangelo is a walking 50-point captain, and Colton Parayko has one of the harder shots in the league. Justin Faulk and Vince Dunn can be sneaky X-Factors in timely moments.
But the Blues wouldn’t have made their run last year, and be as impressive as they were before the pause, had it not been for Jordan Binnington. The young goaltender became the full-time starter last January and led the Blues to the Cup as a rookie. Binnington’s sophomore year was also impressive (.912 save percentage, 2.56 goals-against average), but the Blues benefited greatly from having Jake Allen becoming a top-tier backup (12-6-3, .927 save percentage, 2.15 GAA).
“Well there’s always things you take out of them. Again, the one thing about the Blues, which makes them Stanley Cup champions, is you know what you’re going to get,” DeBoer said. “They consistently bring that to the rink and give that to the other team. There’s no real surprises.”
DeBoer is familiar with Vegas’ upcoming opponents. His San Jose Sharks were knocked out by the Blues in the Western Conference Final. Prior to that, San Jose survived a seven-game scare against the Avalanche (and might or might not have benefited from an offsides call, but we’ll never tell).
“I think both teams haven’t changed a lot,” DeBoer said. “Colorado added some personnel changes to their group but their style of play has been similar. They’re still driven by the same engine and the same core of guys. I think St. Louis, the same. You definitely know what to expect. At the same time, they’re two great teams and knowing what to expect and being able to handle it and negate it and have success is a whole different story.
“They both bring different challenges. St. Louis is more about four-line depth and heaviness and hardness. Colorado, Nathan MacKinnon might be the best player in the world right now, or in that conversation. It’s two totally different looks.”
No changes to the lineup
DeBoer shuffled things midway through the second period Monday against Dallas, but don’t expect those changes to carry over. The Golden Knights are planning on the same lineup they’ve started the past two games. That means Chandler Stephenson is on the top line with William Karlsson and Mark Stone.
Which also means no Max Pacioretty for the third consecutive game, as he continues to rehab from a minor injury sustained during training camp.
“I liked how we played in game one (against Arizona). I hated our first two periods the other night,” DeBoer said. “I think, when I sit back and look at it though, and look at the game the next day, it wasn’t one or two guys that were off where you could make some changes. It was almost the entire team, except for a couple individuals. We’ve got to look into the reason for that. Fatigue, did we practice enough? Did we practice too much? But we’re not going to overreact to it.”
Those changes involved Karlsson reunited with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith. The former top line contributed to Nate Schmidt’s tying goal against Dallas, and Karlsson scored the empty-net goal to seal the game.
“I know them. I played with them a long time, so going back to them was kind of easy,” Karlsson said. “I know how they play and whatnot, so it was an easy transition for me.”
DeBoer did not announce a starting goalie, so don’t expect that until warmups. If I had to guess, it’ll be Marc-Andre Fleury while Robin Lehner gets Colorado.
The Blues were a buzzer-beating goal from getting at least a point from Colorado on Sunday. That would’ve made the final round-robin games chaotic. The Golden Knights need to get to Binnington early, as they did in their two overtime wins at T-Mobile Arena. Allowing a couple of early goals and giving Binnington time to settle in will be disastrous.
It would also benefit the Golden Knights to not allow four goals from Zach Sanford in a game. Other than that, Vegas should’ve won 5-2 instead of 6-5 based on this wonderful Picasso-like painting.
They’ve shown they can do it. This game means a bit more, though.
“When you’re trying to measure yourself up against the league and you’re playing the defending champions and they’re one of the top teams again this year, in this round, they’re probably one of the top teams you’ve got to really focus and make sure you’re ready for,” Holden said, “because we talked about, if we come out kind of the way we did against Dallas, the game might be over after the first period. I think a little more attention to detail, we know we have to have that to start against those guys.”
Chandler Stephenson — William Karlsson — Mark Stone
Jonathan Marchessault — Paul Stastny — Reilly Smith
Nick Cousins — Nicolas Roy — Alex Tuch
William Carrier — Tomas Nosek — Ryan Reaves
Brayden McNabb — Nate Schmidt
Alec Martinez — Shea Theodore
Nick Holden — Zach Whitecloud
How to watch
Time: 3:30 p.m.
TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, NHL.TV
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM
Opposing Blog: St. Louis Game Time