Golden Knights at Avalanche Preview: Battle for first place begins

The Golden Knights are 2-2-0 against Colorado this season.

The Vegas Golden Knights have faced the Colorado Avalanche four times this season. Vegas has won twice, shutting the Avalanche out both times. The Golden Knights lost two one-goal games to Colorado during a four-game set.

Thursday begins what might be the biggest two-game set of the season. The Golden Knights hold a two-point lead over the Avalanche, with a game in hand, for first place in the West Division. They face a Colorado team that has gotten healthy at the right time and has won seven of its last eight.

The Golden Knights have been one of the best possession teams against the Avalanche this season, behind just the St. Louis Blues. Colorado has dominated possession matchups, but the Golden Knights have a 46.51 percent Corsi, 45.18 percent shot share and 46.53 percent expected goal share.

Vegas has seen scoring from 11 players against the Avalanche. The Golden Knights are led by Alex Tuch with three goals and William Karlsson with four assists, three of them primary. Jonathan Marchessault and Max Pacioretty both have two goals.

Meanwhile, the Avalanche have four points from Nathan MacKinnon and three points from Mikko Rantanen against the Golden Knights.

The Avalanche just got Cale Makar and Bowen Byram back from injuries. Makar had been out since Feb. 26 before returning against the Minnesota Wild on March 18. Byram had been out since a day later, Feb. 27. Byram has two assists in 18 games this season while Makar has 17 points in 19 games.

The Avalanche are led by Rantanen, who has 38 points in 31 games. MacKinnon has 35 points in 27 games, while Gabriel Landeskog — who has yet to score a point against the Golden Knights — has 27 points in 29 games. Three of Colorado’s top five scorers have missed at least two games.

The Avalanche are riding Philipp Grubauer, who has started the vast majority of Colorado’s games — 25 of 31. Pavel Francouz, Grubauer’s usual backup, has been injured since Jan. 19. Grubauer is 11 games away from his career high for starts in a season and will likely pass it this year, even in a shortened season. Grubauer has a .930 save percentage and an NHL-high five shutouts.

The Golden Knights face an uphill climb against the Avalanche, despite an eight to six goal differential in the series so far. The Avalanche have been the best possession team in the league in March, with a 64.23 percent expected goal share since March 1.

Vegas is gonna give up some shots in this two-game set. It’ll be up to the goaltenders to play their best and the offense to capitalize on chances the other way.

What to watch for

  • The Golden Knights’ power play has two goals in just 17:55 against the Avalanche. They’ve generated the third-most high danger chances per 60 against the Avalanche penalty kill with 17.73. Vegas will need that power play to be at their best. After two scoreless games against the Los Angeles Kings on the man advantage, the Golden Knights scored two power-play goals against the Blues. Vegas’s power play has generated the seventh-most expected goals per 60 since March 1 with 7.14.
  • On the flip side, the Golden Knights’ penalty kill has been the best against the Avalanche. They’ve allowed the fewest expected goals per 60 to Colorado’s power play (which is currently 14th in the league with 23.4 percent) with 5.19. Vegas’s penalty kill has allowed two power-play goals in the last six games. They haven’t allowed the Avalanche a goal this season. Vegas’s penalty kill is having a rough month of March, with 7.27 expected goals against per 60, 27th in the league. Vegas will need their penalty kill to be better than their recent performance to beat the second-place team in the West.
  • This will be a matchup between two of the top three goaltenders in the league. Grubauer is third with a .930 save percentage and 6.21 goals saved above expected. Marc-Andre Fleury is one spot ahead of Grubauer with a .931 save percentage and 9.14 goals saved above expected. Fleury played all four games against Colorado earlier this season and came out with two shutouts and a .953 save percentage. Meanwhile, Grubauer had a .927 save percentage in those four games. /

How to watch

Time: 6 p.m.

TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain

Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM