This past weekend was a tough one for the Vegas Golden Knights. On the tail end of a four-game road trip, the Golden Knights were matched up with two solid Eastern Conference teams, on a back-to-back. Saturday’s opponent was former Golden Knight Tomas Tatar and the Montreal Canadiens (8-5-3) and Sunday would bring the Golden Knights back into America with a game against the Boston Bruins (9-5-2). The Golden Knights had some momentum, coming off of an up-and-down 5-3 win in Ottawa on Thursday night, capped by two fourth line goals in the third from William Carrier (4th of game, eventual game winner) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (5th Vegas goal).
First up were the Montreal Canadiens, Max Pacioretty’s old stomping grounds. Pacioretty came to Vegas in the offseason via a trade with the Canadiens. Vegas sent Montreal a haul in return (Tomas Tatar, prospect Nick Suzuki, and a 2nd round pick). Pacioretty has battled injury early on and had a modest stat line coming into the game (2g, 0a) while Tatar had already matched his 20-game output with Vegas (6g, 8a) at the end of the 2017-18 season. Prior to the trade, Pacioretty spent his whole NHL career in Montreal, totaling 626 regular season games played with 226 goals, 222 assists, for a total of 448 points. This move by General Manager George McPhee was not for a random depth scoring forward. He went out looking for an impact player, who has scored at least 14 goals every season since 2010-11, including five 30-goal campaigns.
Needless to say, Pacioretty came out swinging, as a starter for Saturday’s game in Montreal. Whether it was the nice tribute video prepared by the Canadiens and shown pre-game, or plain desire to show them what they lost, Pacioretty was shot out of a cannon from the start of the game. In the first period alone, Patches, as he is affectionately referred to, accumulated five shots and Vegas got out to a 2-0 lead. Vegas’ goals came toward the end of the first with a Brad Hunt power play goal and a Jonathan Marchessault redirection. On the second goal, Reilly Smith sent the puck toward Marchessault from the low corner, banked it off his skate and past Montreal goalie Antti Niemi. Everything was good.
Montreal opened the scoring at 6:04 of the second period with a goal from Charles Hudon, assisted by Jesperi Kotkaniemi and defenseman Victor Mete. Just a minute later, Andrew Shaw of the Canadiens tied the game, courtesy of a Vegas defensive breakdown out front. Just before Hunt could clear the crease, Shaw was able to swipe it toward a floundering Marc-Andre Fleury and into the goal. All three Canadien forwards were digging for the puck out front as Shaw was joined by Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi. That line has been very effective for the Canadiens early on this season and thanks to their determination, the game was tied and momentum was certainly on their side. Montreal would eventually add a third goal and take the lead before the 10-minute mark of the second period. Everything was not good.
With 5:26 remaining in the second, Vegas tied the game on an Alex Tuch wrist shot. Tuch moved to the high slot, attempted a shot, picked up the blocked shot, and fired it again, beating Niemi to the blocker side. This goal highlighted Tuch who has been visually and statistically one of the best Golden Knights since his return from injury. Tuch is proving that he is worth the seven year, $33.25 million contract extension he signed while out of the lineup. At the end of the second period the score was tied at three goals apiece. Everything was good.
Vegas’ once anemic power play grew some legs in the third, when William Karlsson scored for the first time in six games. Karlsson sent a shot at Niemi that was stopped, but then kicked past him by his teammate Matthew Peca. Karlsson’s speed in transition led to Peca hustling a little too hard to get back into the play which ended in him inadvertently kicking the puck in his own goal. Vegas’s power play goal was their second of the night and their fourth straight power play resulting in a goal, a far cry from the last place power play they sported a few games ago. Everything was good.
Montreal would go on to score the last two goals of the game, taking the win in their home arena, by a score of 5-4. To make matters worse, the game winning goal was scored by none other than Tomas Tatar, yes that Tomas Tatar, the former Vegas Golden Knight. Sometimes when things are going badly, it just piles on, and seeing your former teammate score the game winning goal against you had to feel like a kick in the you-know-whats. Unfortunately, the Golden Knights had to pick themselves up and head to Boston for a game the next day. Everything was not good.
Arriving in Boston, the old stomping grounds of Colin Miller and goalie Malcolm Subban, the Golden Knights knew they needed to come away with a win, hopefully breaking even on their four-game road trip. That would not be the way it went down in Boston. With the former Bruin Subban in net, the Golden Knights came out on the wrong side of a 4-1 game. Vegas fought to stay in the game with Boston, as evidenced by their 38-37 Shots on Goal edge, but Boston’s front line talent proved to be too much for Vegas to handle.
A surging Vegas power play was held without a goal (0 for 4) for the first time since Tuesday’s game in Toronto, the pinnacle of their struggles on the PP this season. Right from the start Boston took a 1-0 lead. Less than three minutes into the period Danton Heinen beat Subban, getting Boston an early lead. The Bs would add another goal in the first, courtesy of Jeremy Lauzon. Two early goals, without the mention of Boston’s big guns Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, or David Krejci. Everything was not good.
Boston got another early goal to start the second when Brad Marchand, one of the biggest pests in the league, but an extremely talented player, scored. Bergeron got the puck to the low slot, where Marchand was beating defenseman Deryk Engelland for position, and Marchand made a slick backhanded attempt that beat Subban, blocker side. Subban could not have made that save because the loose puck bouncing around led him the opposite direction. Engelland needed to be a bit stronger on Marchand out front, as opposed to cross checking him, gliding toward the outside forward, and then struggling to get back in time to affect Marchand enough on the shot. Boston’s puck movement, although broken up and recovered a few times, had Vegas on their heels and eventually led to the goal.
Cody Eakin got Vegas on the board 10 minutes later with a nice one-timer in the slot, assisted by Tuch. Tuch utilized his speed and reach to strip the Bruins of the puck, turned around and brought the puck into the zone, shielding off the Boston defenseman, and setting Eakin up for a slam dunk shot attempt. Eakin needed to bury it, but Tuch certainly made the play happen on his own, and Eakin didn’t miss when it came to him. The goal was Eakin’s fifth of his injury-shortened season. Boston would add another goal in the third, Pastrnak on the power play, to wrap up their 4-1 home victory. Vegas allowed seven Boston power plays as they seemed to have trouble staying out of the penalty box. A team as talented as Boston is bound to score with that many shots at it. Vegas’ penalty kill went 6 for 7 on the night which is a respectable showing.
Vegas certainly had their chances to score. Boston took the first three penalties of the game, but Vegas was unable to find anything on the power play and capitalize on the sloppy play of the Bruins. As the game went on, Vegas would end up the most penalized, receiving some of the stranger calls possible in a tripping penalty on their goalie Subban and a faceoff violation penalty (kicked out of faceoff circle twice in one draw).
In order to get something going and find a spark, Coach Gerard Gallant started moving players around, including breaking up the top line of Karlsson, Marchessault, and Smith. Pacioretty took shifts with Karlsson and Smith while Marchessault skated with Eakin and Tuch. They need to find ways to get Pacioretty involved, in the absence of Paul Stastny. Right now, Pacioretty looks very similar to Tatar last season, a goal scorer who looks out of place once they arrive in Vegas. Last season Tatar spent time as a healthy scratch. Prior to coming to Vegas, Tatar recorded three 20-goal seasons and hadn’t scored less than 16 goals in a full-time capacity, in his career. In Vegas Tatar was held to four goals and two assists in 20 games. Pacioretty’s line of two goals and no assists in 14 games makes you wonder. Why can’t the newcomers find success?
Gallant loves guys that forecheck, play fast, and play physical. A guy like Ryan Reaves is bound to be a favorite of Gallant. He skates hard and hits everything in his sights. Carrier does much of the same and Bellemare doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas. Their line has consistently been the best-looking line for the Golden Knights and they are scoring goals at a much higher clip than you’d expect. The top line has been the next best line, to the eye test. The talent and speed of Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith help them on the forecheck and cycle game. They are able to find ways to score while playing a Gallant style with two of them having experience with him in Florida as former Panthers.
The depth scoring has been essentially non-existent from lines two and three. Tuch has been a bright spot in the middle six on the depth chart since his return from a lower-body injury, but not much else has been going well for the middle sixers. Cody Eakin scored a few quick goals upon his return to the lineup, but most of the middle six has struggled all season. Below are the stat lines for the middle six of the Vegas Golden Knights (excluding Paul Stastny, injured in game four).
Player: Games Played – Goals, Assists, Points, Plus/Minus Rating
Eakin: 15 GP – 5 goals, 3 assists, 8 points, -1 +/-
Tuch: 10 GP – 4 goals, 5 assists, 9 points, +3
Erik Haula: 15 GP – 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points, +1
Pacioretty: 14 GP – 2 goals, 0 assists, 2 points, -6
Tomas Nosek: 16 GP – 1 goal, 0 assists, 1 point, -14
Ryan Carpenter: 16 GP – 0 goals, 2 assists, 2 points, -13
Tomas Hyka: 13 GP – 0 goals, 3 assists, 3 points, -2
Oscar Lindberg: 6 GP – 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points, -3 (13th forward, healthy scratch)
These numbers, aside from Tuch’s and to a lesser extent, Eakin’s are not good enough to make a team a playoff contender. Vegas’ top line has been unable to singlehandedly take over games and the result has been more losses due to a lack of scoring punch outside of 4 or 5 players. Combine that with defensive lapses that lead to odd man rushes the other way and you have a formula for losing more games than you win. Vegas’ style of up-tempo forechecking and transition play has been neutralized thus far by their opponents. When they’re forced to slow down the pace and create in more of a calculated way, they have struggled. Guys like the 4th liners have been effective in the run and gun style while others are struggling. It seems as if Coach Gallant and the Golden Knights need to find a way to win with the personnel they have, not by expecting them to succeed in the current system. Either that or McPhee needs to get players that fit that mold, not give away three draft picks, in a trade deadline deal, for a guy who will end up being scratched by your coach. Similar to how Tatar and Pacioretty looked like completely different players upon their arrival, Vegas’ own returnees are also struggling to regain their 2017-18 season form. Nosek was a bright spot last season, alongside Bellemare and Carrier and Carpenter found success in bunches once Vegas claimed him from the Sharks' waivers.
Vegas will be getting number one defenseman Nate Schmidt back within the week (11/18 @ Edmonton), but he is not the end all, be all for this team. Sure, the return of Schmidt and eventual return of Stastny should help, but what if it doesn’t? What if Vegas is stuck in this rut for a prolonged period of time? The team needs to do something and fast, before this season gets too out of reach. The NHL is a league of parody and any team can beat any other team on any given night, but approaching the quarter mark of the season in 7th in the Pacific is certainly not where Vegas wants to be. Simply put, everything is not good.
Vegas looks to bounce back, at home, on Wednesday versus the Anaheim Ducks. They have already beaten Anaheim once in Vegas, a game that saw them take 45 shots, scoring three, at Ducks goalie John Gibson. A game against the lowly Ducks could be a step in the right direction for the struggling Golden Knights. Some familiarity of the home arena and a team they have already dominated and beaten could be the perfect medicine and stop the two-game losing streak they are bringing back to Vegas with them.