What to watch for as the Golden Knights face the Panthers

Re-read this sentence until it is locked in your brain: Vegas can take top billing in the NHL standings with a win. What a time.

The date is Jan. 19, 2018. The Vegas Golden Knights are 44 games into their inaugural season. They’re coming off their second win of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team with the most points in the NHL.

Tampa might not be the only team with 65 points at the end of Friday night, if Vegas has its way.

Vegas, coming off a 4-1 victory at Tampa Bay on Thursday, sits at 63 points. That’s still tops in the Western Conference and Pacific Division. As the Golden Knights head to Sunrise, Florida to take on the Florida Panthers, this expansion team has a chance to take the top spot in the NHL with a win.

Yes, these are weird times we live in and up is down, down is up and sense is not being made. But wouldn’t fate have it for the Golden Knights to take the throne, at least for now, as the No. 1 team in the NHL by taking down Gerard Gallant’s former squad? That’s what the Golden Knights face heading into Friday’s game.

The Golden Knights won their first game post-bye week behind a two-goal first period (hello James Neal and Nate Schmidt), and tacked on scores from David Perron and William Karlsson. Forget the fact Tampa Bay was coming off its bye week — that was still shocking. Marc-Andre Fleury was superb once again, making 28 saves for his 10th win of the season. Not a bad way for him and Neal to get acclimated with Amalie Arena, where they’ll be for the All-Star Game in a couple weeks.

Awaiting the Golden Knights are the Panthers, also coming off their bye week but in desperate need of a victory. Florida went into its mandated bye losing four of five (1-3-1) after winning five in a row. Ironically, that five-game winning streak came after the Panthers lost to Vegas 5-2 at T-Mobile Arena on Dec. 17. Malcolm Subban is expected to be in net for the Golden Knights after Fleury played Thursday.

Gallant’s Revenge II is upon us.

If the power play isn’t working, that five-on-five will suffice

I think back to Nov. 9, 2013. I was in college and I covered the UNLV men’s basketball season opener against Portland State. The Rebels, notoriously bad at free throws during my college tenure, went 13-for-28 at the charity stripe but still won by 19 points. After the game, then head coach Dave Rice was asked about his team’s struggles on shots that are, well, free.

“What do you do when you can’t make free throws?” Rice said. “Talk about it; not talk about it? Have a free throw exorcism? I don’t know the answers right now but it’s a momentum killer for us.”

I bring this up because the Golden Knights need a power play exorcism. Vegas is now 1-for-29 with a man advantage since Dec. 23 after going 0-for-2 on Thursday. Beating the dead horse is no longer acceptable because it requires reviving the dead horse, only to kill it again. How the Golden Knights continue to be so bad playing with an extra attacker on the ice can’t be explained. Alas, the Golden Knights are 8-2-1 since Dec. 23.

That’s not all. Vegas has outscored opponents 33-18 during that stretch. The Golden Knights are averaging three goals per game with virtually no help from the special teams department. At some point, the Golden Knights will get it together on that end, but continuing the five-on-five dominance helps. Vegas isn’t winning these games by accident. It helps the Golden Knights have killed 27 of their past 28 penalties, neutralizing the lack of power play ability and forcing teams to win at even strength.

I mean, the Golden Knights are winning. Does it really matter how at this point?

Containing the awesomenes that is Alexsander Barkov

The first-time All-Star is one of the more exciting players in the NHL and was on a hot streak before Florida went into the bye. He had seven points in four games before going pointless in the 4-2 loss to the red-hot Calgary Flames.

Barkov didn’t have a point in the last meeting against Vegas, which is a credit to the Golden Knights’ defense after allowing those two quick goals before Vegas scored five straight and ran away with that win. Barkov is not the only primary playmaker Florida has, but he is something else. If Vegas has hopes of keeping this game close for an all-important road win, keeping Barkov quiet is a start.

I am here for Ryan Carpenter

The former San Jose Shark is getting a chance to play, and he’s doing well with it.

Carpenter has started the past three games, primarily as a bottom-six fill-in for the injured Cody Eakin and/or somewhat-surprising healthy scratch Brendan Leipsic. With Oscar Lindberg getting some reps, Carpenter has gotten a chance to play with Tomas Nosek hurt on the fourth line. He’s done, for the most part, pretty good!

He had a season-high four shots on Thursday against Tampa Bay in 11:29. Carpenter had some really good looks and moved without the puck well. He was, essentially, a Nosek clone only a bit faster and with a better shot. It’s no wonder the Golden Knights really wanted him in the expansion draft from San Jose. Even when playing on the third line at Nashville, Carpenter played a solid 11:38 with Lindberg and Alex Tuch.

It seems like only a matter of time before Carpenter breaks through in the scoring department, but nonetheless, he’s been stellar as a stopgap and the bottom six has not missed a beat.

How to watch

Time: 4:30 p.m. PT

TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM