Golden Knights vs. Avalanche Preview: Top seed in the Western Conference on the line
The winner gets Chicago, the loser gets Arizona.
The Golden Knights played the Colorado Avalanche twice this season.
Vegas would like to forget those games.
Nevada Day and two days before Christmas were not festive at T-Mobile Arena. The Avalanche put 13 goals on Vegas in 120 minutes while only scoring four.
The good news about playoff hockey; you throw regular season results out the window. The Golden Knights and Avalanche will meet Saturday with the winner clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“We didn’t have our best games against Colorado, there’s no doubt about that,” said Golden Knights forward Reilly Smith. “Their star players weren’t really scoring on us. They caught us on some bad nights. We expect that to change.”
Smith isn’t wrong. Not only did the Avalanche take Vegas to the woodshed, they did so with Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen taking the nights off. Colorado’s top line combined for six points, led by its Hart Trophy finalist collecting four assists.
The damage done by the Avs came from their depth, primarily from former Golden Knights folk legend Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. The former fourth-line center collected his first three-point game in the NHL on Oct. 25, and then a two-goal outing Dec. 23, both in front of the crowd that cheered him for two years.
There won’t be fans this time, but there will be a different-looking Golden Knights team from the one Colorado whooped before the turn of the decade. Peter DeBoer is the coach, and Marc-Andre Fleury will likely not be in net. Robin Lehner is expected to start for Vegas in his second round robin appearance.
“I can tell you as impressed as I was during the pause [watching film], I was more impressed in the couple games I’ve attended live here during the round robin,” DeBoer said. “They’ve got it all; they’ve got depth, they’ve got superstars, they can score and defend better than people give them credit for. They’re loaded and it’s going to be a great test for us.”
When healthy, Colorado might be the deepest team in the West field. MacKinnon put up 93 points while dealing with injuries to his line mates. Rantanen played only 42 games but was near a point per game (41), and Landeskog played 54 games but was still second on Colorado with 21 goals.
Calder Trophy nominee Cale Makar was a 50-point defenseman in his first full year in the NHL. Makar made his league debut during last year’s playoffs and was a key contributor in the Avs’ run to Game 7 of the Western Conference Second Round.
But the Golden Knights hope the third time’s the charm offensively (and maybe defensively) against Colorado. Replicating their first two round robin games would be a good start. Vegas combined for 11 goals against Dallas and St. Louis, with seven of them coming in the third period.
Eleven different players scored a point in Vegas’ 6-4 win over the Blues on Thursday, a come-from-behind victory that gave the Golden Knights this opportunity. Ten different players got on the score sheet in Monday’s 5-3 win over the Stars.
“If you want to be successful this time of year, you’ve got to have scoring by committee,” said defenseman Alec Martinez, who did not have a point Thursday. “Everyone throughout the lineup is going to have to come up big.”
The Golden Knights’ depth is being tested through this round robin. They’ll likely be without Max Pacioretty for a fourth consecutive game as he continues to rehab from a minor injury sustained during training camp. DeBoer said his top scoring forward is “really close” to making a return, but did not commit to him being available Saturday.
Instead, Vegas is getting contributions from the players they need to contribute. Alex Tuch scored twice in the second period Thursday, a sign that the young power forward could be the X-Factor he’s expected to be. Shea Theodore chipped in with two goals from the blue line on Thursday, and even rookie defenseman Zach Whitecloud scored his first NHL goal — a game-tying tally.
DeBoer said it was going to be critical for the third line to contribute to that scoring. Tuch’s two goals Thursday were crucial, as are Nick Cousins’ three assists through two games. Nicolas Roy has been quiet in the goal department, but he has two assists through two afternoons.
“It’s going to be critical,” DeBoer said of the depth. “We talked from Day One of camp that we had to get our third line creating some offense. We know what our fourth line brings, and they’ve chipped in some offense, too. They bring an element that softens the other team.
“Outside of what they do, we need to have three lines that are dangerous offensively, and it’s starting to feel like we have that. Obviously Pacioretty back in the lineup helps us there, too, but you forget quickly your leading scorer has been out of the lineup, and that’s what’s been impressive for me about the way we played and the offense we’ve generated. That’s a good sign.”
The winner will guarantee a date with the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, while the loser will draw the Arizona Coyotes. The Blackhawks, the No. 12 seed in the West, eliminated the Edmonton Oilers in four games in their qualifying series, while the 11th-seeded Coyotes also advanced in four games by dispatching the Nashville Predators.
From the moment the qualifiers began, DeBoer has made it clear he wants to get the No. 1 seed for many of the benefits it possesses, even if there’s no real “home-ice advantage.”
“It is worth it,” DeBoer said. “The higher the seed, the easier path. That’s the reality. There isn’t an easy path when the playoffs start, but there’s definitely some paths that are easier than others. You get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last change, you get the benefit of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room.
“I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important, and we’ve played that way and prepared that way, so we keep going. The goal from Day One of camp was to try and get the first seed, and we’ve got an opportunity to do it.”
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
How to watch
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM
Opposing Blog: Mile High Hockey