Golden Knights at Rangers Preview: Vegas faces Gerard Gallant for first time since coaching change

The Golden Knights look to make it four straight wins.

In addition to being a matchup between two talented ice hockey clubs very much considered playoff favorites, tonight’s tilt between the Vegas Golden Knights and New York Rangers is replete with narrative.

Gerard Gallant is and always will be one of the most important figures in the history of the Golden Knights franchise.

The organization’s actions in January 2020 did not reflect that, but it’s a fact.

Tonight’s game marks the first time he will face his former team since he was unceremoniously fired on that fateful day nearly two years ago, replaced by the so-called “clown” on the other side of Vegas’ biggest rival.

Gallant played an integral role in getting the Golden Knights off the ground immediately in  Vegas’ inaugural season. He was the glue that brought everyone together, as his leadership and coaching turned a bunch of misfits into the Golden Misfits.

Not to mention the fact that he helped Vegas shatter countless records and reach the Stanley Cup Final in Year 1.

It’s no surprise he was awarded the Jack Adams Award that year as coach of the year.

Though the circumstances are very different, he is having a similar effect on his current team and is well on his way to being considered for the Adams once again.

Like he did in Vegas, he has taken a mix of players, many new to the club, and turned them into a cohesive, productive and successful team.

Rangers owner James Dolan made a splash (even by his standards) at the end of last season, dismissing the coaching staff and general manager without warning (even within the organization).

In response to a perceived lack of toughness on the team, new general manager Chris Drury followed Dolan’s direction and made a concerted effort to acquire big, physical players in the offseason, and he collected more than seemed necessary.

So despite the top-end talent on the roster, there were question marks headed into this season given some of that offseason activity, which included trading for Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves and quickly signing him to a two-year extension.

But the question marks have since vanished as the Rangers have gotten off to a fantastic 19-7-3 start, and Gallant has his fingerprints all over the team’s early success.

The Rangers currently occupy the second seed in the Metropolitan Division, the deepest and most competitive division in the NHL. That being said, New York has stood atop the league standings at times this year.

With 41 points through 29 games, the Rangers would be the best team in the Western Conference and are the fourth-best team in the league, trailing first-place Tampa Bay by one point.

It helps having players like Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad along with the red-hot Chris Kreider and recent Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox.

The Rangers lost top-six winger Pavel Buchnevich in the offseason for financial reasons, trading him to St. Louis and not getting fair value in return. Sammy Blais came over in that deal but is out for the season after a run-in with P.K. Subban. In addition to Blais, the Rangers more than filled the “toughness” quota by bringing in players like Barclay Goodrow, Dryden Hunt, Patrik Nemeth, Reaves and Jarred Tinordi, among others.

Some of those players have done well, while others have performed, shall we say, as expected.

But Gallant is, once again, getting the most out of underestimated players. He has done an admirable job defending and protecting players (especially the young ones) from media scrutiny and has been pushing the right buttons.

Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil are two young Rangers that have struggled this year; in fact, Chytil was a healthy scratch the other night against Arizona for the first time in years.

Lafrenière has been relegated to bottom-six minutes and has seen very limited ice time. However, he did step up the other night against Arizona with elevated minutes after Panarin left the game with an injury. Panarin is currently listed as day-to-day, which would be a significant loss for the Blueshirts. It should help that the team has four days off after tonight’s game and four days off after the next, though.

UPDATE: Panarin to miss game

Kreider is having another excellent season and is sixth in the league in goals with 17. Fox is tied for second in assists (26), with Panarin sitting in third with 24.

But the fact that the Rangers have gotten off to a strong start and haven’t at all seen the best of people like Zibanejad is telling. Zibanejad is off to a slow start, which isn’t unusual for him, but he has just two goals at 5-on-5 this season. He’s the kind of player who can and often does score four goals in a game, but he hasn’t hit his stride thus far.

Top draft picks Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko have yet to become true stars, though Kakko is finally starting to put it together and is coming off a two-goal performance against the Coyotes. The Rangers are hopeful that what each showed the other night is a preview of what is to come.

Goaltender Igor Shesterkin is having a masterful season and is a huge reason why this team has hovered at the top of the standings. He has bailed out his teammates on many nights — the Rangers are known for entering a shell game on a frequent basis — and has been the team’s best player this year.

Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Shesterkin leads the NHL in save percentage with a .937 mark, and he is seventh in goals-against average (2.05).

If he’s unable to return to the lineup tonight, Vegas can expect to face backup Alexandar Georgiev, who has seen a resurgence after taking on an elevated role in Shesterkin’s absence.

It’s clear that Gallant has chased the wins this year rather than evenly distributing ice time and starts. He relies heavily on his top players and starting goaltender, though he may have to adjust that strategy tonight depending on the personnel.

Gallant went 118-75-20 across three seasons in Vegas and now has an all-time record of 289-223-54 with four ties (.550) in 570 NHL games with Columbus, Florida, Vegas and New York. He is hoping to add one more “W” to his resume this evening.

He will look to his top line for answers, as Zibanejad leads the Rangers in scoring against Vegas with five goals and eight points in six games; Kreider is second with four points.

If you look at the Rangers’ point totals against Vegas, almost all of the players are no longer with the team. For example, the list includes Mats Zuccarello (4), Kevin Hayes (4), Jesper Fast (3), Buchnevich (3), Michael Grabner (2), Brady Skjei (2), Jimmy Vesey (2), Brendan Lemieux (1), Rick Nash (1), Mark Staal (1), David Desharnais (1), Kevin Shattenkirk (1), Ryan McDonagh (1), Boo Nieves (1), Tony DeAngelo (1), etc.

The list goes on, though it does include zero points in four games for Brett Howden. He will look for a taste of revenge himself tonight as he faces his former team for the first time.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Alex Tuch leads the Golden Knights in scoring against the Rangers with six points in six games; Tuch scored that memorable overtime game-winner in Madison Square Garden back in December 2018 and had a two-goal game in another of Vegas’ wins. But among current players, Jonathan Marchessault has six as well, with Reilly Smith right behind him with five.

It has been more than two years since these teams have met, with the last matchup — a 5-0 win for the Rangers — coming on Dec. 8, 2019. The teams played the week before, with Vegas pulling off a 4-1 win on the road. The Knights took three of the other four for an all-time record of 4-2-0.

Following last night’s game against New Jersey, the Knights will look to improve to 3-0-0 on this four-game road trip, which concludes Sunday against the New York Islanders.

The Knights have won six of their last seven games, outscoring their opponents 33-19 in that stretch. Vegas enters tonight’s game on a three-game winning streak.

The Knights got zero points from the top line last night in Newark after the trio combined for 17 in the previous two games. It seems unlikely that the Knights will pull off another win without input from that line.

The Rangers are coming off a 3-2 win against Arizona following a 1-0 loss to Nashville. It would be surprising if they don’t come out with a strong effort tonight for their coach.

Reaves and Howden also have a chance to face their former teams for the first time.

Reaves played 209 regular-season games with the Golden Knights, scoring 18 goals and 42 points and recording 158 penalty minutes. He added two goals and seven points in 48 playoff games and has six assists in 25 games this season.

Howden scored 16 goals and 49 points in 178 games with the Rangers and has two goals and six points in 20 games with Vegas, with one of those assists coming last night in New Jersey.

Aside from the narratives, here are three things to watch for in tonight’s matchup.

Keys to the game

  • No freebies: Discipline will be critical for the Golden Knights tonight, as the Rangers not only have one of the best power plays in the league but rely heavily on power-play production. Vegas was very disciplined in Boston but lost that focus last night in New Jersey; that can’t happen tonight. The Rangers have the sixth-ranked power play, operating at 25 percent, and are fifth in the NHL with 21 power-play goals, 20 of which have come at 5-on-4. The Golden Knights, by contrast, are second in the NHL with 73 5-on-5 goals but are tied for 24th with just 13 on the man advantage. Special teams very well could be a deciding factor in tonight’s game given how the two teams have operated thus far. The Rangers are also sixth on the penalty kill, stopping 84.1 percent of opposing power plays. The Knights had four opportunities last night, including 54 seconds of 5-on-3 action, and though Dylan Coghlan did score on the man advantage, the power play looked completely out of sorts for most of the night; Vegas even gave up a shorthanded goal. Even if Panarin doesn’t play, Kakko took his spot on the top power play the other night, where he netted the game-winner, so Vegas can’t afford to cater to the Rangers’ style.
  • Play to your strengths: The Rangers are ranked 23rd in the league with 49 goals at 5-on-5 this season (24 fewer than Vegas); it’s not shocking that the Rangers are one of the worst possession teams at 5-on-5. They have a 45.93 percent Corsi share, 46.63 percent shot share, 46.92 percent expected goal share and 44.92 percent scoring chance share. It hasn’t mattered in the standings, but in addition to keeping play at 5-on-5, the Knights will need to capitalize on this imbalance.
  • Lead the way: Vegas is 13-0-0 when leading after two periods this season; the Rangers are 10-0-2. That’s not very surprising since both teams are competitive and because having a lead in the third period is a massive advantage. However, the Rangers have won just one time (1-7-0) when trailing after two periods, so it has been especially difficult for the team to mount late comebacks. The fact that the Rangers have been so solid with a late lead is largely related to the play of Shesterkin, who has been able to close down games even when the Rangers stop playing. The Knights will be much better off if they didn’t have to test that in tonight’s game./

How to watch

Time: 4 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM