We are finally here, the week of the first NHL games in over four months! A familiar foe, the Arizona Coyotes, await the Vegas Golden Knights for their sole exhibition game on Thursday evening. With teams entering "the bubble" this past weekend, things are getting real!
Following the exhibition game, the Golden Knights will have three days off, before meeting the Dallas Stars (4) in their first of three Round Robin games. These games present a chance to better their third seed and the Golden Knights will admittedly treat these games as official playoff games.
Setting an appropriate level of intensity is important for a team looking to be ready for Round Two. Their eventual opponent will be ready to go, fresh off a playoff "play-in" series. If the Golden Knights will win this ensuing series, they will need big performances all-around, but a few players in particular, are critical to the team's playoff success.
Here's the no-brainer of the bunch. Mark Stone IS the best player on the team. He does it all and this is not a slight to Reilly Smith, another alternate captain who's a Jack-of-All-Trades. They both have top-end talent, but the energy and prestige around Stone puts him in that limelight.
Stone can't have a bad series if the Golden Knights expect to win. They aren't automatically doomed to lose if Stone struggles, but their chances do lose a ton of weight if he does, they get real slim. Stone's and William Karlsson's importance for that matter, increase each and every day leading goal-scorer Max Pacioretty remains out.
Even when he isn't putting the puck in the net, Stone makes his teammates better. He chips in on the forecheck, is a great defensive forward (2019 Selke Award nominee), and plays on both special teams units. His importance and value is not reliant on point production. His presence is felt by the opposition whenever he touches the ice. A motivated and determined Mark Stone is a scary opponent. He's a legitimate game/series-changer.
The Third Line:
A new-look third line has been created by Head Coach Pete DeBoer and they could be pretty darn good together. This would be a welcome change for the Golden Knights who haven't had a truly successful third line since 2018.
Chandler Stephenson - Nicolas Roy - Alex Tuch
That line has speed, size, scoring touch, and youth. Many of those words are precursors to winning. Looking back to 2018, when the Golden Knights were able to roll three productive lines, only one of these men - Alex Tuch - was on the team.
Both Stephenson and Roy have come via trade and in Roy's case, an AHL call up.
Upon his promotion, Roy has passed the eye test with flying colors. His presence is noticeable, even when you're not looking for him. He does it all, playing an aggressive game in the corners, and shows flashes of high-level offensive touch, albeit in a grinding capacity. He became a mainstay on Feb 20 and in those nine games recorded two goals, two assists, and a team-leading even strength Corsi For % of 63.87%.
Roy could be the guy to get the phenomenally talented Tuch going. Roy's work in the corners and skill with the puck will open up ice for Tuch. He posted 15 and 20 goal seasons before finishing with eight in a shortened season this year. There's no question, the talent is there, but the hope is that this is the combo to get the best possible version of Tuch. Playing alongside two speedy, ice-opening forwards should
do the trick.
If this line gets rolling, the Golden Knights will be even more incredibly tough to beat. All three players have shown second line upside and even successes. They can all move up and down the lineup, a valuable asset to a playoff team. This line could make OR break the VGK postseason.
From preseason game number one, it was clear to see that Pacioretty was a different player and looked primed for a big season. Fast forward a few months and his name tops the list of Golden Knights goal-scorers. Unfortunately for the team, he has missed approximately a week's worth of practices.
Obviously, his sniping ability is a huge loss if he were to miss games, but the former Montreal Canadiens captain provides much more than on-ice tangible skills. He is looked at as an important piece of the leadership group in Vegas. Although his jersey doesn't show it, his role has been confirmed twice-over by numerous players and coaches alike. His eventual return from an undisclosed absence instantly boosts the club.
In his absence, fourth line center Nick Cousins has covered the 2-LW spot. Cousins is more skilled than your typical fourth-liner, but he's no Pacioretty. The team can and would win games without the man they call Patches, but it's not preferable. Getting one of their top-six forwards back, is imminently important to the team.
Pacioretty has not yet travelled to "the bubble" in Toronto, but still has time to do so and quarantine before the Stars game. The team is significantly better with the 30-goal scorer.
More often than not, playoff series are won by good goaltending. The trade deadline acquisition of Robin Lehner gave the Golden Knights one of the best goaltending situations in the league. They should be destined for big things.
Looking back on the past decade, the Stanley Cup winners had the following notable starting goaltenders:
Antti Niemi: 16-6-0, 2.63 GAA, .910 SV%
Tim Thomas: 16-9-0, 1.98 GAA, .940 SV%
Jonathan Quick: 16-4-0, 1.41 GAA, .946 SV%
Corey Crawford: 16-7-0, 1.84 GAA, .932 SV%
Jonathan Quick: 16-10-0, 2.58 GAA, .911 SV%
Corey Crawford: 13-6-0, 2.31 GAA, .924 SV%
Matt Murray: 15-6-0, 2.08 GAA, .923 SV%
Matt Murray: 7-3-0, 1.70 GAA, .937 SV%
Marc-Andre Fleury: 9-6-0, 2.56 GAA, .924 SV%
Braden Holtby: 16-7-0, 2.16 GAA. 922 SV%
Jordan Binnington: 16-10-0, 2.46 GAA, .914 SV%
It is apparent that two things generally hold true through these postseasons. First, teams ride one goaltender. The Golden Knights have two and unless they're going to be trend-setters - with the goalie who was in the only "tandem" - they need to land on a starter.
Just today, DeBoer gave the media some goalie usage insight when he shared the following quote on our Zoom call. Props to Ken at SinBin for capturing it.
DeBoer says the goalies will probably play 2 and 2 between the exhibition and round-robin games. From there, they'll "have to make a tough decision."
Additionally, the goalies winning the Stanley Cup put up great numbers. Both Golden Knight netminders are elite goalies. They're very different goaltenders, but both bring a high level of play and valuable experience. At this point in their careers, Lehner may need to be "the guy", but Fleury will get the first shot. Lehner could very well pull a Braden Holtby circa 2017 and save the playoffs, as he did for Philip Grubauer.
Regardless of the man who gets the call, or even if both do, they'll need to be the MVP. Goalies have singlehandedly won Stanley Cups in the past. They have the ability to do the same, with a good team in front of them.
There is one defenseman on the Golden Knights roster who can be a game-breaker and that is the electric Shea Theodore. The young d-man is dynamic with the puck without compromising his defensive responsibilities. He will confidently be on the Norris Watch List in the near future.
Theodore plays a game similar to that of Nate Schmidt, but at a higher level. His skating, puck skill, and nose for the net make him an X-Factor, that other teams would love to have. A dangerous two-way defenseman is hard to account for and beat.
If Theodore is on his game, the Golden Knights are hard to beat. He won't have the benefit of the 3-on-3 OT session, where his offense really shines, but he will QB a power play unit. Special Teams are extremely important in postseason play and he is one of the most important names on the VGK power play.
A good postseason out of the soon-to-be 25-year-old would put the Golden Knights in a great position to win. His line of 13g-33a-46p is right in line with the likes of Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, other young, offensive defensemen. Despite the talent, he does it without as much hype. Theodore could potentially be the Golden Knights' best kept secret and this could be the year he puts the league on notice.
All 20 players are important come playoff time. The team needs to play as a cohesive unit and typically, the hottest team wins the Cup. This season will be different, with all teams coming in essentially cold. If there's one certainty, hockey is back and it will be awesome!
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