Lightning at Golden Knights Preview: Vegas shoots for sixth straight win prior to holiday break

The Golden Knights recently swept their four-game East Coast road trip.

The Vegas Golden Knights return home from a successful road trip with a chance to extend their season-high five-game winning streak; however, doing so will be easier said than done with the Tampa Bay Lightning in town.

The National Hockey League and NHL Players’ Association announced last night that the holiday break will begin tomorrow, two days earlier than scheduled, as a result of the widespread COVID-19 outbreak affecting teams throughout the league.

All five of Thursday’s games have been postponed, including the matchup between the Knights and Los Angeles Kings.

The Golden Knights currently have zero players on the COVID-19 protocol list; the same is true of the Lightning. However, more than 100 players have entered protocol since Dec. 11.

Of the 10 games originally on tap for tonight, only two are set to proceed as planned: Washington at Philadelphia and Tampa Bay at Vegas.

Assuming nothing changes, the Knights will play the final game prior to the pause; the season is set to resume on Monday, Dec. 27.

For now, the Golden Knights just need to focus on securing another two points before the break.

The Knights have won five straight after sweeping their four-game road trip, collecting eight out of eight points with wins against Boston, New Jersey, the Rangers and Islanders. Vegas is coming off back-to-back shootout wins and has won eight of its last nine games, going 8-2-0 in December.

Tampa Bay has won back-to-back games and seven of eight this month. The Lightning are the third-best team in the league with 42 points in 29 games; a win tonight would push them into first overall in the league.

The Golden Knights sit atop the Pacific Division standings with 40 points, but all but one Pacific team (Anaheim) will have games in hand over Vegas after tonight.

Neither team is desperate, but both could use the two points.

Tampa Bay has been without Nikita Kucherov since late October, and Brayden Point has been out of the lineup since late November; Point is due to return shortly after the holiday break, while Kucherov’s original timetable places his possible return in mid-January.

Even without two-thirds of the top line, Tampa hasn’t skipped a beat. That’s in large part due to the play of captain Steven Stamkos, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. The roster may not be quite as star-studded as usual, but Tampa Bay is an elite team and will be a difficult matchup for Vegas.

Stamkos leads the team in scoring with 34 points in 28 games; Hedman has 30, Alex Killorn has 24 and Ondrej Palat has 18. Both Tampa Bay and Vegas have nine players with at least five goals this season. One player to keep an eye on is Taylor Raddysh, who has four goals and eight points in his last nine games.

The Knights are 4-2-0 all-time against the Lightning. This will be the first meeting between these clubs since February 2020.

Here’s what to watch for in tonight’s game.

Keys to the game

  • Best behavior: The Golden Knights have given up a power-play goal in three straight games; the penalty kill continues to be a weakness and a source of inconsistency. One way to combat that is to stay out of the box. Surprisingly, Tampa Bay is 20th in the NHL on the power play (18 percent); Vegas is 18th at 18.4 percent. Tampa typically ices a top-5 power play, top-10 in a down year. Unlike Vegas, however, the Lightning’s power play has not improved in recent games; missing a player of Point’s caliber will do that. Even so, with Hedman at the point, Stamkos’ accuracy, Killorn in front and Palat as an option, the Bolts are more than capable of making Vegas pay for each penalty. Tampa Bay has converted on seven of 19 opportunities against Vegas’ penalty kill, good for 36.8 percent. Vegas has surrendered at least one power-play goal in five out of six meetings against the Lightning.
  • Not throwin’ away my shot: Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Andrei Vasilevskiy ranks seventh in goals-against average (2.10) and ninth in save percentage (.928). He was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last season, has helped the Lightning win back-to-back Stanley Cups and is considered one of the top goalies in the world. However, he hasn’t been quite so convincing against the Knights. In fact, in six games against the Knights, Vasi is 2-3-1 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. He also hasn’t been quite up to par (by his standards) this year despite being tied for the league lead in wins (16). The Knights can’t allow prime scoring opportunities to go by the wayside; capitalizing, especially early, will be important against a goaltender Vegas has been able to handle over the years.
  • Belly and the Beast(s): The Lightning’s third line —consisting of veterans Corey Perry, Patrick Maroon and former Golden Knights center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — has been surprisingly effective this season and should not be underestimated. In 189:07 of 5-on-5 ice time, the line has a 64.94 percent high-danger Corsi share and an 82.81 percent goal share. They’re not producing at an elite clip, but they’ve been effective. Perry is pointless in his last three but had six goals and 10 points in the previous 10 games; Maroon has six goals, surpassing his total from last year in half the time. Bellemare always seems to up his game against Vegas; he has six points in 10 career games against the Knights.
  • Pace the race: The Golden Knights have given up the first goal in five out of six games against the Lightning; Vegas has gone 3-2-0 in those games. The one time Vegas scored first was a win for the Golden Knights. While scoring first is always a luxury, it’s not something Vegas has required in this particular matchup, and the Knights have shown a capacity to come back from deficits in recent games. Playing from behind is never ideal, but the Knights will need a methodical, 60-minute effort regardless of the score.
  • Shea it ain’t so: Shea Theodore scored one of the most memorable goals in Golden Knights franchise history back in Year 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. The goal, scored on the power play, came with just 2.3 seconds left in regulation and lifted the Knights to a 4-3 victory. It was part of a four-point game for the young blueliner. Theodore happens to be coming off a two-goal performance that also featured a shootout goal; perhaps that will carry over into tonight’s matchup./

How to watch

Time: 7 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9