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Golden Knights at Islanders Preview: Vegas looks to sweep road trip with fifth straight win

The Vegas Golden Knights wrap up their four-game road trip Sunday afternoon against the New York Islanders; it will be Vegas’ first game in the Islanders’ new venue, UBS Arena.

Vegas is 3-0-0 during the road trip thus far and has won seven of its last eight games.

The 2021-22 season has not gone as planned for the Islanders, who find themselves at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division and near the bottom of the league standings.

Coming into this afternoon’s game, the Islanders have won just eight games all season (Vegas has won 19). To be fair, the Islanders have five games in hand over the Knights after several games were postponed due to a COVID outbreak earlier this season. But it’s still a very deep hole to dig out of, an effort the Islanders can’t afford to delay.

The Islanders have gone 3-2-0 in their last five games but were stuck in a month-long 11-game losing streak from Nov. 6 to Dec. 7.

The Golden Knights have faced adversity early on this year as well. Both teams were considered favorites coming into the season after playoff runs that ended one round shy of the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams have underperformed but are working towards righting the ship.

The Islanders will be without top-line center Mathew Barzal and top defenseman Ryan Pulock; Kyle Palmieri is listed as day-to-day and did not participate in yesterday’s practice.

Barzal is a big loss, as he leads the club in scoring with 17 points. Oliver Wahlstrom (13) and Brock Nelson (12) are just a few points behind; Nelson has a team-high nine goals on the year. After missing last season, captain Anders Lee got off to a very slow start this year and then missed time with COVID-19; however, he has been heating up of late, recording four goals and five points in his last five games. Defenseman Noah Dobson has impressed in recent games, tallying five points in his last seven games.

Palmieri and Zach Parise were supposed to fill the hole left by Jordan Eberle, who was selected by Seattle in the expansion draft. However, the two have combined for just two goals and 12 points in 25 games this season.

The Islanders haven’t had the truly elite goaltending they’ve grown accustomed to under head coach Barry Trotz, who turned this team into a defensive stalwart when he joined the club in 2018-19.

That trend started with the goaltending duo of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner, who went 25-13-5 with a 2.13 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and six shutouts that year.

Semyon Varlamov missed the start of the season due to injury and is just 1-5-1 with a 2.99 goals-against average and .900 save percentage this season. With a much more challenging schedule last year, Varlamov went 19-11-4 with a 2.04 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and seven shutouts.

But Varlamov is coming off his lone win of the season, a 40-save effort against Boston on Thursday. Goaltender Ilya Sorokin could be in the crease this afternoon in the first half of a back-to-back for New York.

Sorokin is 7-7-4 with a 2.47 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and three shutouts.

One of those shutouts came against the Golden Knights back on Oct. 24; Sorokin made 42 saves in the effort.

The Knights are 3-3-1 all-time against the Isles but have gone 3-1-1 in their last five meetings. New York was one of two teams that Vegas was unable to beat in Year 1, the other being Minnesota.

It seems somewhat inevitable at this point that the league could shut things down through at least Christmas. The list of teams with postponed games is growing; it includes Calgary, Toronto, Florida, Nashville, Colorado, Boston, Vancouver, etc.

The league recently implemented stricter COVID protocols reminiscent of last year’s policies; they are expected to be in effect until at least Jan. 7, but with more and more teams having widespread issues, a temporary shutdown could be on the horizon.

Assuming today’s game goes through as planned, here are five things to watch for in today’s matchup against the Islanders.

Keys to the game

  • Score a goal: This goes without saying, but it’s something Vegas was unable to do against the Islanders earlier this season, so it’s a starting point at the very least. The Knights’ offense has been firing on all cylinders this month, with the possible exception of Friday night against the Rangers. However, the Islanders have given up an average of 2.84 goals against this season (compared to Vegas’ 3.03). That puts New York right in the middle of the pack, but the number has dropped to an average of 2.50 in December. The Knights have the edge in scoring with an average of 3.50 goals per game (compared to the Islanders’ 2.16). Only two teams have lower averages: Montreal (2.13) and Arizona (1.93). But the Islanders are better than their record, so Vegas can’t underestimate the opponent.
  • You’re the top: Chandler Stephenson will have a chance to face his former coach and will look to get his linemates back on the scoresheet after back-to-back games without a point. The trio of Stephenson, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone combined for 17 points in a two-game span prior to the back-to-back against New Jersey and the Rangers. It won’t be easy without last change, but with Vegas’ bottom nine contributing in recent games, some top-line production would really make Vegas a more dynamic threat.
  • Take advantage: The Golden Knights’ penalty kill continues to struggle despite the recent string of wins. The Knights have given up power-play goals in back-to-back games and have given up eight in the last six games (after going 8-for-8 at the start of the month). Five of those came in the disastrous two-game stretch against Dallas and Philadelphia, but it continues to be an issue. Staying out of the box is always the best strategy, but the Knights need to demonstrate a lasting ability to kill off penalties spanning multiple games. The Islanders have the 26th-ranked power play in the NHL, operating at 16.2 percent. However, that number does not reflect the team’s recent performance. The Islanders’ power play was 32nd in the league at 3.5 percent in the month of November and clicked at 10.2 percent in the first two months of the season. In December, however, the Islanders rank sixth (31.6 percent). Vegas has given up goals to the best and worst power plays in the league, but the fact that the Islanders have been able to produce even with limited opportunities leaves a very slim margin of error for the Knights.
  • Be alert: The Golden Knights have not been sharp enough at the start of periods. It hasn’t been the difference between winning and losing (yet), but it’s a glaring issue that continues to present itself. Vegas has given up a goal in the first two minutes of a period in four straight games, and three of those goals came within the first 21 seconds. Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad scored nine seconds into the second period, Patrice Bergeron scored 21 seconds into the third period and Mika Zibanejad found twine 17 seconds into the second period the other night. Jack Hughes scored 1:41 into the game on Thursday. Even if many of those goals were the result of lackluster goaltending, the entire lineup needs to be more focused coming out of the locker room.
  • Be the first: The Islanders are 6-4-4 when scoring first but 1-8-1 when giving up the first goal. This statistic is only relevant until it’s not, but one regulation win in 10 tries may be indicative of something larger at play. The Knights surrendered the first goal against Anaheim, Dallas, Philadelphia and New Jersey. Two of those games were losses (Anaheim, Philadelphia), while one required a massive comeback (Dallas). The only exception was the game against the Devils. The Knights got the first goal against Arizona, Calgary, Minnesota, Boston and the Rangers, all of which were wins. It hasn’t been a major factor for the Knights, who are 7-6-0 when giving up the first goal, but it has affected the other team in today’s matchup./

How to watch

Time: 11 a.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM