Golden Knights vs. Stars Preview: Round-robin play begins

The hockey counts for real now.

Do the round-robin games matter?

That’s Final Jeopardy question for the eight teams that are guaranteed a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when they start in over a week.

It sounds good in theory to want to control your destiny when the teams dwindle from 24 to 16. The playoffs will re-seed every round, and if you’re the No. 1 seed, your path to the Stanley Cup Final looks a lot easier.

That’s the mindset the Vegas Golden Knights are taking into their round-robin games, starting today against the Dallas Stars. The Golden Knights ended the regular season with the third best points percentage (.606), which allowed them this position to earn what is essentially a bye with the Stars, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche, while the other eight teams in the Western Conference are in desperation mode to earn the right to play for the Cup.

“Huge luxury,” said coach Peter DeBoer on being in the round-robin. “I want to stress we earned that luxury by the work we did during the regular season that put us in that spot. You look around the league, the parity in the NHL is such between team No. 12 and team No. 24 is very tiny. I knew these three out of fives would be literally dog fights right from Day 1. You’re happy not to be involved in that. You’re happy you get a little more runway before your first series, and you’re lucky that series is four out of seven.”

Comparing the competitive edge between the qualifying series’ and the round robin is night and day. Two teams playing for their lives versus two teams getting ready for the nitty-gritty is no comparison. Hence why it’s so astonishing to see the two No. 12 seeds — Chicago and Montreal — lead 1-0 in their respective best-of-5.

But the Golden Knights do see value of being at their best in these three games, especially given the future uncertainties of the lineup. Max Pacioretty, still not with Vegas in Edmonton, will miss the game due to the minor injury from training camp he continues to rehab from. His return is “on the horizon,” according to DeBoer, but whether that means the horizon is off in a close distance or hundreds of miles away has yet to be determined.

As expected, Robin Lehner will start in goal for the Golden Knights. The plan remains for Lehner and Marc-Andre Fleury to split the four games. Lehner gets the call after Fleury made 22 saves in Thursday’s 4-1 exhibition win against the Arizona Coyotes.

The Golden Knights would love a performance like Thursday’s exhibition, and the Stars might be the team to help propel that. Dallas lost their final six in a row and were shut out twice in that span. The Dallas offense was also non-existent for most of the season; Tyler Seguin is the lone 50-point scorer on a roster that should be much more dangerous than that. That isn’t to say the chances haven’t been there. More on that below.

The Stars are not a bad warmup given the Blues and Avalanche lie ahead, especially how their game ended Sunday with a 2-1 buzzer-beating win for Colorado. Should Vegas win, that game against St. Louis rings large for both parties involved.

“I think it’s going to be a lot more upon ourselves to have these three games to have that type of intensity and to have that type of fire and passion,” said defenseman Nate Schmidt. “A few weeks ago, I said, ‘how are these games going to play out? You don’t want to get hurt.’ I think now, you have to take these games as a three-game mini series, if you will.”

Now, your keys to the game.

Moving on without Pacioretty

The first go-round for Stephenson with Mark Stone and William Karlsson was OK, but that trio needs to generate some offense.

Stephenson was the only one without a shot on goal; Stone had one. While Karlsson had four, two of them came at 5-on-5. Three shots total by your top line won’t cut it, especially when the advanced numbers weren’t that great (33.33 Corsi).

A couple of factors: While it was everyone’s first game in a while, it was Stone’s first game since that lower-body injury sustained before the pause. It’s nothing, he’ll be fine. But Stephenson on the wing is good in a pinch, maybe in a middle-six role. Maybe not the top line.

I don’t want to fall into the trap of the exhibition lifestyle, but these are the times we live in.

Don’t give the Stars chances

The ledger won’t read well in favor of the Stars; losing six in a row, including two losses in overtime, is not great, Bob. But while Dallas struggled greatly to win/close out games, the chances were there. They had more scoring chances in four of their six losses, held the Corsi advantage in all of those games, and at least doubled their opponents in high-danger chances in four of those games.

Things can change with five months off. The Stars might turn into the offensive juggernaut everyone thought they’d be this season. Jamie Benn might be due for a 40-point playoff run; Miro Heiskanen could go all-Norris level if he wanted. Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin could shut every team out for the rest of time.

In short: What we knew of the Stars then could be different now. Because good lord, look at this chart from a 2-1 overtime LOSS to the Edmonton Oilers.

Power play? What is it?

The Golden Knights were 1-for-6 on the power play against the Coyotes. This isn’t to nitpick on the one-game sample size, but to say the power play has been middle of the table since DeBoer became coach on Jan. 15.

Vegas is at a 20.7 percent clip under DeBoer (11-for-53). They finished ninth in the league this season, but 20.7 would be just over the Winnipeg Jets’ 20.5 percent at 15th. Not bad, but not great.

Then you watch Reilly Smith’s power-play goal Thursday. If this is a designed play, it’s brilliant.

You’re not seeing four guys crash the net all in a straight line, not be offsides, and still set a screen in front of Darcy Kuemper (an underappreciated moment in Nick Cousins’ brilliant game) all that often. This is the kind of stuff the second power play unit can be good at, especially if Alex Tuch leads the forecheck through the neutral zone like that.

“Power play got us a big goal. They looked dangerous,” DeBoer said Thursday. “There were a couple of other real good looks. I thought their goalie made a couple of big saves in the second period, particularly where we could’ve had a second one. For four months off and a couple weeks of training camp, I thought both areas [including penalty kill] were good.”

Again, maybe it’s the exhibition talking. Do more of that, though, you’re in good shape.

Golden Knights projected lineup

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

Robin Lehner

Marc-Andre Fleury

How to watch

Time: 3:30 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet, NHL.TV

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM

Opponent’s blog: Defending Big D