On Sunday afternoon, most televisions were tuned into the Wildcard round of the NFL Playoffs, but the Golden Knights were at the T-Mobile Arena, with a sold-out crowd in attendance, taking on the New Jersey Devils. Heading into the game, the Golden Knights sported a 25-15-4 record, good for second place in the Pacific Division, two points behind the division-leading Calgary Flames.
Malcolm Subban, Shea Theodore (USA Today Sports)
Backup goaltender Malcolm Subban was given a rare home start, his first start in Vegas since March 30th last season. With the backup goalie in for Vegas, New Jersey came out swinging in the afternoon contest. Early on, the Devils wanted to take the game to the Golden Knights, trying to establish momentum and attempting to mute the fans. New Jersey displayed an aggressive forecheck and eventually took an early lead. Nico Hischier opened the scoring for the Devils, just 5:06 into the game, with his 12th of the season. New Jersey would extend their lead with 10:23 left in the first period when defenseman Ben Lovejoy scored his first of the season. Lovejoy pinched low into the zone, received a pass, and shielded off Cody Eakin on his way to the net, from the low corner. He then outwaited Subban across the net front, spun back to the net, and flung the puck through the overextended Golden Knight goalie. Considering it was a defenseman’s first goal of the season, it was sensational.
Ryan Reaves Goal (USA Today Sports)
Just under three minutes later, Ryan Reaves got the Golden Knights on the board with a slick wrist shot that beat Keith Kinkaid to the five-hole, for his career-high eighth goal of the season. An unassisted goal, Reaves created a turnover at the Devil blue line, picking off Pavel Zacha. He then broke toward Kinkaid and his shot just barely trickled through, cutting the Devils’ lead in half.
Vegas did all the scoring in the second period, which ended up being enough to seal the game. Defenseman Brayden McNabb scored his first of the season (11:17 of the 2nd) and Max Pacioretty was hit with a Shea Theodore shot for his 12th of the year, at 15:46, to round out the scoring for the day.
Vegas played a very responsible game, amassing a mere two minor penalties. The game got dicey down the stretch for Vegas, as the two Reaves penalties came with less than four minutes left in the third. Reaves’ first offense was a trip on Blake Coleman and was successfully killed off. A short 20 seconds after leaving the box, Reaves picked up another minor when he attempted to score an empty-net goal from the Vegas defensive zone. Reaves’ attempt sailed high enough to go over the glass to the right of the vacated Devil net. Fortunately for Reaves, his teammates were able to kill off the final 1:02, with Subban making numerous big saves. With the win, Subban’s record improved to 2-5-0 on the season. Overall, Subban is down to a 2.95 GAA and .904 SV%, which are respectable looking numbers for an NHL backup goalie. For as little playing time as Subban has had, his game looks surprisingly sharp.
Following the game, Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant seemed unbothered by the risky play and ensuing penalty taken by Reaves. “….you know, sometimes you make mistakes and that happens, and he just missed the top corner, so he tried his best.” Gallant also mentioned that they “love Reaves” and pointed out the goal he scored to get the team going, after starting the game out flat.
With the 3-2 win, Vegas moved into a short-lived tie for first place in the Pacific Division with the Flames, as Calgary won the following night, beating a surging Chicago Blackhawks squad. Calgary is inactive tonight while the Golden Knights take on the New York Rangers, in Vegas. A win versus the Rangers will put the Golden Knights back into a tie for first in the Pacific. Seeding is all elementary at this point in the season, but for a team that struggled as much as Vegas did early on, it certainly gives them a little jump. Following closely behind the Golden Knights are the San Jose Sharks, trailing Vegas by one point, in sole possession of third place.
Tonight’s opponents come into town with a 17-17-4 record, sitting in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division. Mika Zibanejad is the main catalyst of the Rangers’ offense and he leads the team with 34 points (11g, 23a) in 41 games. Following behind Zibanejad in point total is Kevin Hayes, a player currently out of the lineup nursing an upper-body injury. Hayes has been ruled out for the game in Vegas. Chris Kreider is having a great season for the Rangers, leading the team in goals with 20. The 2009 first-round draft pick has a career-high goal total of 28 and is already knocking on the door of breaking it. The Vegas defensemen will need to contain Kreider, who mixes deceptive skating with a plus shot. His nose for the net is unquestioned and it would be surprising if the Golden Knights didn’t make a concerted effort to frequently pair him with the Nate Schmidt-Brayden McNabb duo.
Marc-Andre Fleury is certain to be in goal, following a start for Subban on Sunday. Fleury has been a workhorse all season for the Golden Knights, almost to a fault. His pace for games played, is generally unsustainable through a playoff run. The Golden Knights would be wise to capitalize on Subban’s current level of play, in limited opportunities, and allow Fleury to rest up for the most important time of the season, the playoffs. On the other end of the ice, Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the most talented goalies in the NHL. A career-long Ranger, Lundqvist is the star of the team, continuing to anchor an inconsistent Ranger lineup. On the season, King Henrik has a 3.04 GAA and .909 SV%, but game tape shows strong goaltending, in his 14th season of NHL action. Although he will not be in the lineup this evening, a goalie of Lundqvist's caliber demands attention. New York will be sending out Alexandar Georgiev, with the hope that he can contain a red-hot Vegas Golden Knights team, looking for their seventh straight win.
Brandon Pirri (USA Today Sports)
Brandon Pirri is back in Vegas and is almost certain to be in the lineup this evening, in place of William Carrier, who remains out with a flu. Pirri was Vegas’ leading goal scorer and first in points during his seven-game stretch in the lineup. He will be reunited with the same line, skating with Paul Stastny and Alezx Tuch. Max Pacioretty is expected to shift up to line one, replacing Reilly Smith. Smith’s status remains unclear after leaving Sunday’s game against the Devils with an injury, although he is expected to miss tonight’s game against New York. In order to evaluate their newcomer Valentin Zykov, it may be beneficial for Gerard Gallant to scratch Ryan Carpenter or Oscar Lindberg for a game or two, while they have the roster openings. As of their morning skate, it appears that will not be the plan of action this evening.
Projected VGK Lineup:
Marchessault – Karlsson – Pacioretty
Pirri – Stastny – Tuch
Nosek – Eakin – Carpenter
Lindberg – Bellemare – Reaves
McNabb – Schmidt
Theodore – Engelland
Merrill – Holden
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