Heading into the Holiday Break, the Vegas Golden Knights have plenty of reasons to be smiling. They sit atop both the Pacific Division and the Western Conference with a record of 24-11-1.
They are in control of it all as head coach Bruce Cassidy has breathed new life into their defense and special teams during his first year at the helm in Vegas. On top of it all, their young goaltending tandem is holding its own and allowing this team to thrive.
With all the success the team is experiencing, general manager Kelly McCrimmon is more than pleased with the team’s start but understands there is still plenty of hockey to be played with still more than half a season to go. McCrimmon knows better than anyone, as the Knights were first in the Pacific last season when they hosted the 2022 NHL All-Star Game on Feb 5th at T-Mobile Arena and wound up missing the playoffs.
While the Knights have been strong for 36 games to begin the season, they must maintain the same success for the next 46 to close out the regular season.
“We need to play really well in the second half to make the playoffs,” McCrimmon said Friday. “We need to play really well in the second half if we’re going to be a team that has a chance to win our division. I think last year really showed us that things can change in this league.”
The Keys to the 1st Half Success
Becoming the best team in your conference is no easy task, and for the Knights, their success is due to a variety of factors.
As mentioned earlier, Bruce Cassidy has the special teams firing on all cylinders, especially the power play unit. The Golden Knight’s power play is ranked eighth in the NHL, as they are converting 26.5 percent of the time when on the man advantage.
It’s not just the special teams that are getting the job done for the Knights, as their blue line has been crucial for their sustained success. Led by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the defensive unit has been strong. Pietrangelo has been doing it all, as he has four goals and 22 assists while providing shutdown defense. He has been a big part of the power play and has registered one goal and ten assists when quarterbacking the unit.
Well, it’s great when your top six is producing as expected; it’s even better when your fourth line becomes a game-changer. For teams to succeed all season long and in the playoffs, they need players to produce up and down the lineup, and the Knights have that with William Carrier. The 28-year-old fourth-line left winger has been exceptional for Vegas this season. Coming into this season, his career high for goals in a season sat at nine, which he set last year in 63 games. This season, he has scored ten goals in only 35 games providing Vegas with essential depth scoring that changes the outcome of games.
The biggest surprise of this season and a significant reason for this team’s success is the goaltending. The status of the Knight’s goaltending was a question mark for this team back in August when they announced goaltender Robin Lehner would miss the season because of a hip injury that required surgery. But after a trade for Adin Hill and the emergence of rookie Logan Thompson, this duo has helped the Knights post the eighth-best team saves percentage in the NHL.
“It’s been a nonissue in terms of it being a concern,” McCrimmon said. “It’s been the exact opposite. It’s been a real strength for our team.”
There Is Still Room For Improvement
There have been two areas of concern for the team that they must sort out in the second half. Their home record and the third-line play have been major disappointments.
It’s called home-ice advantage for a reason, but the Golden Knights have yet to figure that out this season. They’re 10-9 at T-Mobile Arena, compared to a 14-2-1 record everywhere else. At the same time, it is fantastic that they are finding ways to win on the road; they need to figure out how to win at home when the advantage is theirs. They lead the NHL in wins and goals per game (4.12) on the road but are tied for 29th in goals per game at home (2.63). It’s such a problem that players have had a hard time trying to explain the difference, and even McCrimmon admitted “it’s hard to pinpoint” a reason.
The Knights have been able to depend on three of their four lines, with the third line being the outlier. Bruce Cassidy has yet to develop a dependable third line, as his other three lines have performed well when healthy. The third line has been the definition of a challenge, as a combination of injuries and inconsistent play have caused the head coach to cycle through players.
Injuries have played a major part in the downfall of the third line as center Brett Howden who spent time on that line, has missed 15 straight games with a lower-body injury. He’s not the only one, as rookie left wing Paul Cotter has missed four in a row with an upper-body injury.
“It’s where the uncertainty or the inconsistency of our team has been is around that third line,” McCrimmon said. “It seems to be where our health impacts us a little bit.”
Due to the constant shakeup of the third line, one player, in particular, has suffered the most. Right-wing Phil Kessel has seen his production drop due to the inconsistency and lack of chemistry it brings. A two-time Stanley Cup champion, Kessel was brought in on a one-year $1.5 million deal back in August and quickly became a beloved figure in the locker room.
The lack of consistency has caused the veteran winger to struggle to produce as he is getting moved around the lineup or having his linemates change. So far this season, he has registered six goals and seven assists in 36 games. There has even been concern that when the team is fully healthy, Bruce Cassidy may bench the veteran ending his iron man streak that broke 1000 games earlier in the season.
“I think we’re still going to see better hockey from Phil,” McCrimmon said.
Health Will Determine How This Season Ends
Staying healthy has been a weakness for this team and will determine how this season finishes out. They’ve already overcome the loss of Lehner, so what more can go wrong? Last Friday, when the Knights played their final game before the Holiday Break against the St. Louis Blues, they were missing a handful of players. Along with Howden and Cotter, they played without forwards Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault and defenseman Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud.
When you’re missing your best players and critical depth players, it’s hard to find ways to win. Teams are just not built to sustain that much loss and still be on top. As of late, the absences have made it more challenging to win, as the group is 11-9-1 in its last 21 games after coming out of the gates with a 13-2 start. In the end, they still have a five-point lead in the division and a three-point lead for the top seed in the conference.
The central question remains when Jack Eichel will return? He has missed nine of the past ten games with a lower-body injury, and still no timetable for when he will be ready to return.
McCrimmon did mention that the team has received a number of opinions on Eichel’s injury and the team has a treatment in place. The Knights are still keeping it hush-hush on how long the recovery will take.
“We want to have this be something that we put behind us and not deal with again,” McCrimmon said.
The Golden Nights will be back in action tonight as they take on the Los Angles Kings on the road at 10:30 pm EST. This will be an important win for the Knights as they look to put more distance between themselves and the Kings, who currently sit second in the Pacific.