While Vegas hasn’t been in action since last Tuesday’s shootout loss to Toronto, it was a busy week in terms of news for the franchise.
The most exciting of which was the new addition Jack Eichel finally hitting the ice for practice. The superstar center’s much-anticipated debut sent social media abuzz as soon as he joined the squad for practice. Eichel has now practiced a couple of times and, by all accounts, is moving tremendously and feeling better all the time. At the team’s last skate, Alex Pietrangelo joked that it wasn’t fair that they couldn’t hit Jack, who was dominating some drills (Eichel remains in a red jersey at practice, signaling not to make contact with him during drills).
Soon that red jersey will come off, but for now, significant progress is being made, and the Eichel addition is finally starting to feel real for fans. It’s also a unique circumstance where a mid-season acquisition can ease into a situation and get to know the guys and get comfortable in their surroundings before being thrown into game action, which I think will be very positive.
The second news of the off days came as all-star coaches and teams were announced. Pete DeBoer will be behind the bench in familiar territory as the T-Mobile arena hosts the All-Star festivities for the first time. He earned the right as the Golden Knights sat atop the Pacific Division with a .618 points percentage as of the January 10th cutoff date.
DeBoer will be joined at home by Mark Stone (7G-18A in 22 GP) and Alex Pietrangelo (6G-18A in 37 GP), who were selected for the team. Jonathan Marchessault (18G-9A in 34 GP) still awaits his fate for the game as the last men in votes are coming to a close.
The last of the exciting week-off news involved a top prospect as Golden Knights 2020 first-round pick Brendan Brisson was named to Team USA’s Olympic roster. The University of Michigan sophomore has been displaying his speed, skill, and high hockey IQ this season, posting 15 goals and 15 assists for 30 points in 25 NCAA games. The Olympics will be a cool opportunity for the 20-year-old not only to represent his country but to build some confidence and keep developing his skills playing alongside a roster of some of the best collegiate players and pros from leagues outside the NHL. Just the fact that he was selected should do a lot for the youngster’s confidence.
That about re-caps what was a fun week of news, despite game cancellations that left Vegas fans without games. But finally, they are back tonight so let’s look ahead to the matchup against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins are one of the hottest teams in the league over the last couple of months and an outstanding road team with a 12-5-3 record away from home. They did a fantastic job staying afloat while their stars were out. Now they have Crosby and Malkin back, which, alongside Jeff Carter, gives them some of the best center depth in the league. In their last ten, the Pens are 8-2 and are also getting back Bryan Rust, who missed the previous four due to COVID protocols. Jason Zucker (lower body) is expected to be a game-time decision.
What can Vegas expect from their opponent? Pittsburgh is a very disciplined, defensively sound team. They lead the league with the least amount of penalty minutes this season (6.6 per game) and kill off penalties very well when they do take them, as they have the second-ranked PK unit in the league at just over 90%. They allow 2.5 goals per game, ranking them top 3 in the league. A big reason for that is Tristan Jarry, who is having a tremendous bounce-back season after a disappointing playoff performance to end last season. Jarry – who is expected to start this evening – boasts a 2.05 GAA and a .929 save percentage, good enough to get him back to this year’s All-Star game.
Now looking at the Golden Knights. Last week’s loss to Toronto was a tough pill to swallow, but there were some positives to take away from it. Vegas outplayed the Maple Leafs for most of the game, especially late, without even close to their best roster. The notable absent players also gave opportunities for guys to play more minutes, and I thought it was a great showing from a lot of guys, Keegan Kolesar and Mattias Janmark, specifically who have been playing good hockey in their last stretch.
Vegas will be welcoming some much-needed depth back tonight as Shea Theodore, Nicolas Roy, and Nolan Patrick all return from the COVID list. Roy will slot back in between Kolesar and Janmark, which will likely be a very important third line this evening against a now very deep Pittsburgh forward group. Patrick will slide into the fourth line center role, while Theodore’s presence will be welcomed back on the blue line in every facet of the game.
For me, the key tonight for the Golden Knights will be to feed off the crowd’s energy and each other as fans and players alike will be fired up for game time after a week away. Vegas has been playing solid hockey as of late, and I think feeding off the energy tonight means playing a simple and hard brand of hockey, keeping their legs moving, and wearing down a deep and hot Penguins team. Even though they’re hot, this is an excellent time to get them as they are capping a six games in 12 days road trip. Robin Lehner will get the nod between the pipes.