Honda West elite met Monday night in what was being billed as “the biggest game of the season” for the Golden Knights and Avalanche. A Golden Knights win could clinch a West Division Championship, while a loss would hand control to the visitors from Colorado.
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In their previous meeting, the Colorado Avalanche were run down, with a staggering amount of names occupying the Injured List. Last night was a role reversal, but unfortunately for Vegas, their injuries came with staggering repercussions.
Due to injuries and salary cap constraints, the Vegas Golden Knights were left with just 15 active skaters, in “the biggest game of the season”. The home team dressed ten forwards and five defensemen yet nearly pulled off the upset for the division title.
, Max Pacioretty
, Peyton Krebs
, Tomas Nosek
, Ryan Reaves
, and Alec Martinez
all missed the final home game of the 2020-21 season. Just before the game, General Manager Kelly McCrimmon confirmed Krebs’ unfortunate status of a broken jaw. The young first-rounder was showing promise and then boom, he’s out.
Fleury faithful were surprised by the goalie choice, as Head Coach Pete DeBoer stuck with his 50/50 split in goal, starting Robin Lehner
against the Avalanche. Vegas’ goaltender carousel is one of the mostly hotly debated topics in town, but when push comes to shove, they’ve spent $12 million on a great tandem for a reason.
During Lehner’s absence (concussion) earlier this season, Marc-Andre was ridden far harder than planned or desired. Granted, he played great, but eventually that can catch up to the 36-year-old. Both he and Lehner boast stellar stats and both should and clearly are trusted in big games.
As heightened as playoff competition can be, the Golden Knights would be smart to maintain their rotation. Changing up a winning formula seems unnecessary, especially if the reasoning is strictly “because it’s the playoffs”. Two hot hands are better than one and as long as both men are on, you’d better use them.
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Despite the 2-1 loss, Lehner played well and made multiple big saves. He played a big part in limiting the potent Avalanche offense to just two goals and should not be the scapegoat for a great performance out of Philip Grubauer
made his presence felt by opening the scoring on a beautiful rebound chance, just 8:11 into the opening period. Nic Hague
sent a shot off Grubauer that the Avalanche goalie essentially put on a tee for the former Blues captain. Pietrangelo, who was already pinching down from the original shot, quickly flung the rebound into the open goal.
, who picked up his 40th assist in 55 games, is on pace for his third career season averaging over a point per game. That’s quite the accomplishment for a two-way player of his caliber and work ethic.
and Andre Burakovsky
were the two goal-scorers for the visiting club. Former Golden Knight Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
played a big role in the Avalanche win, stifling the VGK Power Play. Grubauer was sharp, stopping 36 of 37 VGK shots, while fending off the visibly tired Golden Knights down the stretch.
Pacioretty’s continued absence does not bode well for Golden Knights goal scoring. The team’s leader scorer missed his fifth straight game at the most inopportune time of the year. His absence could be a ploy to rest the valuable winger for the playoffs, but that first seed is a fairly important prize.
It’s no secret that the Golden Knights have struggled against the Minnesota Wild this season. If they finish second, they’ll open the playoffs with the Wild and could potentially endure their second first-round exit in four seasons.
If both teams win out - Vegas against San Jose and Colorado with two games against LA - they’d tie for first in points. The tie breaker, regulation wins, would hand the division title to the Avalanche. While I t’s not ideal, the Golden Knights still have a chance to take it and will be hoping for a win of their own and a Los Angeles Kings point.
In more jovial news, following the game the Golden Knights doled out their annual awards. Despite Mark Shunock’s announcement, most of the dejected crowd jumped ship prior to the award and jersey giveaway ceremony.
Seventh Player Award
The Seventh Player Award is “voted by VGK Fans, awarded to the player whose performance on the ice most exceeded fan expectations this season”. Alec Martinez
won the award and was a shot blocking wizard this season, leading the NHL with 111 blocks. He also chipped in 9 goals and 23 assists, his third career 30-point season and first since 2016-17.
He had one of his best seasons, late in his career; a testament to the team around him. Martinez is an impending UFA and with a $4 million cap hit, it’s hard to forecast if he’ll be back.
First Star Award
The First Star Award is given to the player with the most “Star of the Game” selections on home ice throughout the season. This year’s winner, Pacioretty
has 24 goals and 27 assists in 48 games. He leads the team in goal scoring and his absence is felt in games like this past Avalanche game.
Vegas Strong Service Award
This award, the most important of the bunch, is “selected by VGK Staff, awarded to the player most involved in serving and giving back to the Las Vegas community”. Before and after his cancer diagnosis, Shea Theodore
has been a fixture in the community. He’s been a beacon of hope and is one of the most polarizing figures on the team.
All three awards were well-deserved, capping off a great regular season. With their immediate success, this club will always be judged on playoff success. They’ll be looking to at least get back to previous heights, a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.
They have the club to get it done, but the opening matchup could be key. The Western quarter of the bracket will be tough, where even the fourth-seeded Blues present a tough out and a dangerous opponent.
Fortunately for the Vegas Golden Knights and especially their front office who put them in this salary cap hell, there’s no restrictions come playoff time. They may miss out on the President’s Cup (best regular season record) and/or a Division title, but their eyes are on a bigger, more prestigious award. This team is looking for a Stanley Cup.
The first step in clinching the division comes Wednesday evening in San Jose. What could be sweeter than another win over their rivals, capping an undefeated season series and a West Division Championship? Ultimately Colorado holds the cards, but nothing is better than the final push playoff positioning.
If you’re not excited yet,
you should be!
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