What to watch for in the Golden Knights’ 2018-19 season opener
The wait is over.
Tonight marks the start of Year 2 for the Vegas Golden Knights. Though it’s difficult to close the door on the team’s magnificent inaugural campaign, the hunt for the Stanley Cup begins tonight as the Knights play host to the Philadelphia Flyers at T-Mobile Arena. The Knights and Flyers split the season series last year, though Marc-Andre Fleury secured his 400th career win the last time these teams met.
The biggest change to the Flyers roster is the addition of James van Riemsdyk, who signed a five-year, $35 million contract over the summer. JVR is expected to start on the team’s third line in his second stint with the Flyers, which should balance out Philadelphia’s attack. Claude Giroux is coming off a career 102-point season, and he and Sean Couturier will look to have another strong season on the Flyers’ first line. The Flyers have reunited defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov, which figures to be a dynamic pair on the back end.
A former fourth-round pick, Mikhail Vorobyev will make his NHL debut this evening as the Flyers’ third-line center. He impressed in training camp and is the only player on the team with zero NHL experience.
Brian Elliott will get the nod in net for Philadelphia. He hasn’t had too much work in the preseason after coming off multiple major surgeries, but he will look to build off his first season in the City of Brotherly Love in which he went 23-11-7 with a 2.66 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
Here are six things to watch for in tonight’s home opener against the Flyers:
Though the Golden Knights enter the 2018-19 season with unfinished business, tonight’s pre-game ceremony will be a significant tribute to the epic inaugural campaign of the NHL’s newest franchise. The Golden Knights shattered countless records last season en route to both Pacific Division and Western Conference titles. Banners celebrating those achievements will be raised to the rafters tonight. They will serve as reminders of everything that united this city and this team as well as of the work that still needs to be done in pursuit of the Cup.
One of the Golden Knights’ signature “moves” that led to so much success last season was getting on the board first. While the Knights scored the first goal in exactly half of their regular-season contests, they won 34 of those 41 games and came away with points in 36 (34-5-2). That gave them a winning percentage when scoring first of .829, which was the second-highest in the league.
Fortunately for Vegas, the Knights won 17 of the 41 games in which they didn’t get on the board first; not including the five points they picked up in overtime or shootout losses, the Knights’ winning percentage when falling behind was just .415. Lighting the lamp before the Flyers could be a key factor in determining the outcome of tonight’s game.
This is especially true when you have a goaltender like Fleury patrolling the crease. Fleury is coming off the best statistical season of his career after mounting a 29-13-4 record along with a 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage, both career highs. His goals-against average ranked second among all goalies (min. 6 games), while his save percentage ranked sixth among goalies who appeared in at least 20 games and second among goalies who played in at least 40.
He was even better throughout most of the postseason, going 13-7 with a 2.24 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. But prior to the Stanley Cup Final, Fleury was downright sensational. He went 4-0 in the first-round series against Los Angeles and recorded an unfathomable 0.65 goals-against average, .977 save percentage and two shutouts, surrendering just three goals in the entire series. He also dominated the second- and third-round series against San Jose and Winnipeg, respectively.
Now that Fleury is gearing up for his second season in Vegas, his confidence should be through the roof. The Knights rewarded him with a three-year, $21 million contract extension this summer, so he is “the guy” without a doubt. For someone who always plays the game with a smile under the mask, he should be diving across the crease and robbing players point-blank in no time.
The new guys
Though the latest additions to the Vegas roster have already made appearances in the preseason, tonight marks their official Golden Knights debuts. All eyes will be on Max Pacioretty, who will be especially motivated to come out flying out of the gate after an off season last year in which he scored just 17 goals and 37 points. It’s obvious from his interviews and overall demeanor that he is relaxed and thrilled to be in Vegas, so he could be due for another 30-goal campaign. He and linemate Paul Stastny were friends prior to signing with the Knights, and their on-ice chemistry should be evident. Also making his official Knights debut is defenseman Nick Holden, who will start the season on the third pairing with Jon Merrill.
It has probably been several months since you’ve seriously considered the significant ramifications of special teams, but they are back and here to stay. The Knights had discipline issues that got them into trouble late last season, so avoiding trips to the penalty box will be of great importance this year.
For tonight’s matchup, the Knights face a team with the fourth-best power play on the road last season, operating at a 23.3 percent success rate. However, the Flyers struggled mightily when short-handed away from home in 2017-18, managing a 76.8 percent kill rate, good for 24th in the league. By contrast, the Knights had the seventh-best penalty kill at home (84.1 percent), and their home power play ranked 10th at 24.2 percent.
Who gives a Schmidt
Nate Schmidt’s 20-game suspension will officially begin tonight. The jovial defenseman was suspended for violating the league’s Performance Enhancing Substances program; he will be missed. Schmidt is eligible to return to the lineup Nov. 18 against the Edmonton Oilers.
How to Watch
Time: 7 p.m. PT
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: Fox Sports 98.9 FM/1340 AM