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Golden Knights Find Themselves Lost At Home

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

You can feel the anger. You can see the frustration. You can understand the struggle in searching for answers.

For the Golden Knights, home is not a happy place right now. And all the jumping up and down from the fans, all the imploring from the in-game hosts to get loud, all the music everyone has grown accustomed to isn’t going to snap this team out of its current funk in T-Mobile Arena.

This is on the players, plain and simple.

Started out that way, but not so much recently. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Knights have lost four in a row at home. They have begun the eight-games-in-nine stretch at T-Mobile with two losses. The notion of taking the Pacific Division title grows dimmer with each defeat as San Jose has taken control of the top spot.

And it’s not any one thing that has been the cause, though if you are willing to look at it objectively, you’ll see the team hasn’t played a full 60 minutes in any of the recent home losses.

Certainly not Tuesday in falling 5-2 vs Arizona.

Coach Gerard Gallant may not be a math wizard, but he knows percentages. And here’s his take from what was a very brief, angry and contentious postgame news conference Tuesday:

It was 2-2 game and all of a sudden, we try and get cute and start making drop passes through the slot and turn over and then they go the other way on odd man rushes so you know, we get 40-something shots.

I didn’t like the way we played. I thought we played about 10 minutes of real good hockey tonight. There was no passion in our game. There was no aggressive forecheck in our game. We played a soft game, and in my opinion, we gave them three goals from our mistakes.

Not from what they deserved. And they played well, you know I give them credit but when you are going to give them three goals like that you are not going to win many games. -Gallant

So it begs several questions. Why play cutesy with the puck? Why not be more direct? Why not come out with some jump? Was it a lack of respect for the Coyotes, who have played the role of doormat to the Knights in the past? Was it trying to play to the crowd?

I’m not sure the players have the answers. But it’s up to them to fix it.

We didn’t battle hard enough. We were in a good spot going into the third, with 2-2. We just didn’t battle, we weren’t good enough.

Definitely no reason for that group to be losing a game like that. We have the work ethic, all the skills that we need to be successful and we just don’t make it happen. We need to be willing to want it more than the other ones. -Jonathan Marchessault

Nate Schmidt, who also tends to tell it like it is, said there are multiple issues plaguing the Knights right now.

(It’s) more of the same. Not showing up at home, not finishing games, just a lot of things from our game that are just not characteristic of our group.

Right now, it’s tough. It’s tough when you have good parts of the game, you know, you push back to tie the game and just think that you’re going to be easy for the third period. I mean they’re pushing too.

It’s this time of year. It’s hard to win this time of year. And I know we just don’t have it for the whole game and that’s just not going to be enough to win. -Schmidt

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A Weird Night… And A Blown Opportunity

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

I think I can sum up Saturday’s affair at T-Mobile Arena in one word:

Strange.

The Golden Knights were finally back home after an extended All-Star Break and a four-game road trip. The building was energized. The opponent was good. It had all the trappings for a memorable evening.

It was memorable all right — if you’re into bizarre happenings.

Fluke goals. Crazy caroms. Shuffled lines. It all made for a memorable night for the wrong reasons as the Golden Knights squandered leads of 2-1 and 3-2 in falling to the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-3, and left 18,301 people leaving the T shaking their heads in bewilderment and perhaps a tinge of anger.

But what you should remember from Saturday are the two points the Knights squandered. And if they should come up short in their quest to win the Pacific Division, you’ll think back to the game on Feb. 9 as one of the reasons why, just as you’ll remember the Feb. 5 win at Tampa as one of the big reasons why if they are successful in capturing the Pacific.

Vegas has been almost unbeatable at home since it joined the NHL two years ago. But lately, home has not been where the points are. The Knights have now dropped three straight at T-Mobile and last won in their own building back on Jan. 19. Their record at home this year? A far-from-stellar 16-7-3.

What’s troubling is that they had the lead in each of those three games they ultimately wound up losing. The inability to maintain or build a lead at home is becoming increasingly alarming.

With a team like that, you’ve got to play a little more methodical. That’s what’s tough. You have a lead in the third period and you can’t close them out but I thought we gave them the game. It sucks because you’re pretty happy about being up 3-2 and even though you haven’t played a great game, but you’re still up. You have a chance to close it out at home … arrragh! -Nate Schmidt

The weird goals sometimes happen over the course of a season. It wasn’t Marc-Andre Fleury’s best performance either and he was the first to admit it. Maybe the guy is human after all.

Yet the Knights still should have come out of Saturday with points. Unfortunately, Columbus’ best player, Cam Atkinson, delivered when his team needed him the most and scored a pair of goals, including the game-winner with 2:39 to play and Paul Stastny sitting in the penalty box for slashing after Atkinson had put a great move on Brayden McNabb to get free in the Vegas zone.

And had the Knights prevailed, we would be talking about Gerard Gallant’s brilliant strategy to shorten his bench after a dismal second period which saw his team manufacture just three, count ‘em, three shots on goal.

Gallant essentially went with three lines in the third period, sprinkling in Cody Eakin with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Will Carrier and Ryan Reaves while electing to sit Tomas Nosek and Valentin Zykov. And remember, Brandon Pirri wasn’t an option for Gallant as he was a healthy scratch.

The moves looked like they were going to pay off as Eakin put the Knights ahead 3-2 9:21 into the third.

It wasn’t a problem for me. You go out there, you talk with whoever (Gallant) puts you with and you just go play. -Cody Eakin

Why did Gallant do it? After that dismal second period, he couldn’t afford an encore in the third.

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The Golden Knights Get Their Best Two Points Of The Year

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

The Golden Knights are going to pick up a few more points before the season ends. I promise.

But you’re going to be hard-pressed to identify a better two points than the ones the Knights secured Tuesday night in Tampa.

Coming back from a two-goal deficit on the road against the best team in the NHL and dealing with some sketchy officiating while losing one of their forwards, even getting one point was a tremendous accomplishment.

But two?

Give the players and coaches all the credit. They easily could’ve packed it in, especially given the fact they came into Amalie Arena in the throes of a franchise-worst four-game losing streak and had failed to register a single point in the standings since January 19.

Yet the Knights hung in, kept battling, never allowing things to get out of hand. And that tenacity was rewarded with a 3-2 shootout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As always, it started in goal where Marc-Andre Fleury matched Andrei Vasilevskiy shot for shot, right through the shootout.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Brayden McNabb, who has raised his level of play this year, was tremendous in his usual, understated way. I’ve come to really appreciate all the things McNabb does, particularly on the penalty kill, where he and Deryk Engelland have been solid on the first unit going on two years now.

Up front, Cody Eakin never stops working. His game is so much better this year and his goal to get the Knights within 2-1 was obviously huge.

No less important was the great stretch pass off Jon Merrill’s stick to spring Eakin into the clear. Merrill is another player who has made great strides in his second year in Vegas.

And while it was good to see Valentin Zykov find the net, it was just as rewarding to see William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault get back on the scoresheet in helping set up Zykov’s game-tying tally.

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How Will This Golden Knights Team Handle Adversity?

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

For the first time in their brief existence as a franchise, the Golden Knights are facing adversity in the regular season.

Obviously, when you’re playing Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final and you’re down 3-1, that’s the essence of adversity in hockey.

But after watching another failing performance Saturday, it’s clearly evident what’s wrong with this team, which has dropped four straight and last registered a point back on Jan. 19 when it beat Pittsburgh 7-3 at T-Mobile Arena.

The Golden Knights need their best players to start playing like their best players.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

We’re talking Jonathan Marchessault. We’re talking William Karlsson. We’re talking Nate Schmidt.

Yeah, this isn’t rocket science. The trick is how do you get these guys out of their collective funk? Particularly Marchessault and Karlsson.

My flawed thinking was the return of Reilly Smith would get his linemates going. Instead, Gerard Gallant decided to put Valentin Zykov on the top line for Saturday’s game at Florida, relegating Smith to the third line with Cody Eakin and Brandon Pirri.

So what happens? The Knights opt to not start the top line, going with the second line instead. They lose the opening faceoff, Shea Theodore collides with Paul Stastny, Aleksander Barkov skates in and beats Marc-Andre Fleury 12 seconds into the match.

Doh!

The top line was on the ice for the Panthers’ game-winner as Karlsson was unable or unwilling to pick up Mike Hoffman and he beat Fleury to break a 1-1 deadlock.

A year ago, we were all talking about Karlsson winning the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL’s top defensive forward. lately, Pirri has been more of a Selke candidate than Wild Bill.

In the Knights’ four-game slide, Karlsson has been kept off the scoresheet and he is a minus-6, including a minus-3 in Friday’s 5-2 loss at Carolina.

He’s better than that and he needs to play better.

And Marchessault is still in a funk. He has just one assist in the current losing streak. He is minus-8 over the last four and Saturday he managed just one shot on goal.

The defensive lapses, I get. He will never be a Selke candidate. But one measly shot? Sorry, that’s not good enough. Not even close for a guy of Marchessault’s talent.

I thought he was breaking out of the slump when he registered his hat trick against the Penguins and followed it up with an assist in the loss to Minnesota, a game which saw him register seven shots on goal. And he had nine shots against Nashville, even though he failed to gain a point. Of course, Juuse Saros stood on his head that night.

Such wasn’t the case Saturday. James Reimer isn’t winning the Vezina Trophy any more than Marchessault is winning the Selke. He didn’t have to be great to beat the Knights because despite turning aside 34 of the 35 shots he faced, Reimer only had to be on top of his game a handful of times. It wasn’t as though the Knights had a ton of Grade A+ scoring chances that Reimer had to be sensational.

As for the blue line, Schmidt has not looked great of late. He struggled Friday at Carolina and was less than stellar Saturday at the BB&T Center. Granted, he is usually paired against the opposing team’s top line and that has to be factored into things. But Schmidt, like Marchessault, is always honest about his own play and I’m sure if he was being asked he would admit he has to raise his level of compete.

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Golden Knights Have An All-Star In Carnell Johnson

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

I was watching the NHL All-Star Game last Saturday and looking forward to a fun evening of hockey.

Then Lauren Jauregui ruined it.

Jauregui decided she would sing her own rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at SAP Center in front of a worldwide audience. She must have thought she was on “American Idol” or “The Voice.”

As she screeched her way through the song (and bravo to the VGK fans who attempted to drown her out by yelling “KNIGHT”), I could only think of one thing:

“Where the hell was Carnell Johnson when America needed him?”

Understand that I usually don’t rant about national anthems, or pregame routines in general. Whether they are singers who perform or athletes who choose to stand respectfully (see Nate Schmidt) or prefer to kneel (Colin Kaepernick) I respect everyone’s right to sing it and listen to it however they choose.

I know it’s not an easy song to sing and I have been in every NHL arena and have heard it butchered more than once.

So this isn’t about Lauren Jauergui. If she wants to sing it her way, fine. I also don’t have to like it.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

This is about Carnell Johnson, a man who sings it the right way every time. No schmaltz. No interpretation. He sings it the way it’s supposed to be sung — with respect for flag and for country.

Johnson is a 37-year-old Las Vegan who is a trained bass-baritone singer. He works as a gondolier at The Venetian and when (Pippo, his gondolier name) is on the job, he is the most requested person.

The man they call “Golden Pipes” is as good as any anthem singer you’ll find in any sport, anywhere.

Yes, Jim Cornelison is considered the gold standard in the NHL. Johnson himself says the man at the United Center whose voice cannot be drowned out by the Chicago Blackhawks’ fans and who points to the stars and stripes when he sings “that our flag was still there …” is legendary. Whenever NBC does a Blackhawks game in Chicago, it will show Cornelison on the telecast. Maybe it’s in Doc Emrick’s contract.

And there are plenty of other wonderful performers across the NHL. I still think Roger Doucet, who sang “O Canada” at the Montreal Forum during the 1970s and sang it bilingually, is the greatest anthem singer ever.

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Marc-Andre Fleury Respects Those He Passed – And Those He’s Chasing

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

The Golden Knights had but one representative at Saturday’s NHL All-Star Game in San Jose. And while you may quibble over the Knights having just one player participate, no one can argue about the validity of the player who was selected.

Marc-Andre Fleury belongs in the All-Star Game and this was his fourth appearance in the event.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

More important, Fleury is playing at a very high level. Some would argue his performance to date in 2018-19 ranks among his best since he came into the NHL back in 2003. He is 34 years old. He is feeling great. He leads the NHL with six shutouts. And while the Knights are going to make the playoffs, think of where they might be right now if not for Fleury being able to play the majority of the games?

He has played in 45 of Vegas’ 52 games with a record of 27-14-4. Fleury has a 2.59 goals-against average, a .911 save percentage and the six shutouts.

Yes, there should be some concern come the postseason as to his freshness. Assuming there are no mishaps, he’s looking at playing anywhere from 65 to 70 games in net during this season. But that’s a discussion for down the road.

For now, let’s focus on where Fleury is at and where he is going as it pertains to his overall career.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Today, Fleury has 431 wins in the NHL. That places him ninth on the all-time list for victories as a goaltender. He is six wins from tying Jacques Plante, who has 437. He may also catch Terry Sawchuk, who is No. 7 at 445, later this year.

He has already passed Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Hall and Tony Esposito in making his way into the top 10. He is one of three active goaltenders on the Top-10 list — Florida’s Roberto Luongo is fourth with 481 wins and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers is sixth at 446.

Here is the complete Top-10 list of NHL goaltenders wins:

  1. Martin Brodeur* — 691 wins
  2. Patrick Roy* — 551
  3. Ed Belfour* — 484
  4. Roberto Luongo — 481
  5. Curtis Joseph — 454
  6. Henrik Lundqvist — 446
  7. Terry Sawchuk* — 445
  8. Jacques Plante* — 437
  9. MARC-ANDRE FLEURY — 431
  10. Tony Esposito* — 423

*Denotes member of Hockey Hall of Fame

Fleury has played against some of these guys. Others he had watched play as a kid growing up in Sorel, Quebec. A couple he had to go to YouTube and Wikipedia to check out. But I thought it would be interesting to get his views on some of the goalies he has passed and some he continues to chase on the list.

I did not ask about Luongo and Lundqvist since they are still active and Fleury has talked about them in the past.

They’re all great players, obviously. They have different styles but they all did the same thing — stop the puck. It’s an honor to be on the (top-10) list. -Marc-Andre Fleury

Let’s start at the top and work our way down.

Martin Brodeur played from 1991-2005 with the New Jersey Devils. He has three Stanley Cup rings. In 17 NHL seasons, he had a 2.01 goals-against average.

I could always see him smile through his mask. I thought that was pretty cool. He was a guy who was very unpredictable. He would use the poke check or stack the pads and I always liked that about him. He was always consistent. He played a lot of games year after year and he was always good. Always very solid. He could read the play so well. He didn’t move so much and he was always in the right spot. –Fleury on Brodeur

Patrick Roy played from 1984-2003 with the Montreal Canadiens and later, the Colorado Avalanche. He has four Stanley Cup titles and had 66 shutouts.

I was a big Montreal fan and I was excited when they won in 1986 and ’93. What comes to mind is he was a fierce competitor. He was always battling. He was very confident and he had that butterfly style and that’s how I learned from him. He was tall for that era but it worked out for him. He was so good for him. He definitely influenced me. -Fleury on Roy

Ed Belfour played from 1988 to 2007. He spent eight years with the Chicago Blackhawks and five with the Dallas Stars. His one Stanley Cup title came with Dallas in 1999. He also played for San Jose, Toronto and Florida.

I got to play against him a bit which was pretty cool. I thought he moved around well for a big goalie. He stayed on his feet and was good at reading the play. He wasn’t hurt much and he played until he was 40, I think. -Fleury on Belfour

Curtis Joseph played from 1989-2009. He spent his career with six different NHL teams, beginning in St. Louis, then with Edmonton, and Toronto. He also had a brief stop in Las Vegas playing with the Thunder in 1995-96 where he appeared in 15 games.

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Is Jonathan Marchessault Out Of His Slump?

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

January has not been particularly kind to Jonathan Marchessault.

The Golden Knights’ right wing had spent most of the month frustrated and being thwarted by opposing goaltenders and the net which they protect.

Great saves. Hit posts and crossbars. Missed opportunities. They all contributed to a stretch that saw Marchessault kept off the scoresheet for six of the team’s first seven games in the opening month of 2019.

You could see the frustration on his face. But to his credit, Marchessault never stopped working, never stopped shooting. The good ones never do. He’s like a basketball player whose jump shot eluded him but he doesn’t stop taking jumpers. Eventually, they’re going to go in.

And that’s what is happening to Marchessault. He had a hat trick last Saturday in the 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. Monday, he picked up an assist in the 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild. That’s four points in his last two games.

So, is Marchy out of his slump?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

We’ll get a better idea tonight when the Knights host Nashville at T-Mobile Arena in what is a very important game heading into the All-Star break. Marchessault may be reunited with linemate Reilly Smith, who has been out since Jan. 8. He has been skating with Brandon Pirri the last couple of games and that may have had something to do with his getting back on the scoresheet.

But getting Smith back would be big, not just for Marchessault and William Karlsson, the other member of the team’s top line, but for the Knights themselves.

You saw what defenseman Colin Miller’s return has meant to the team. Getting Smith back improves the power play, improves the penalty kill and make the other lines stronger. It also helps get the Knights closer to normalcy in terms of having the roster they envisioned at the start of the season.

Marchessault has not missed any time in 2018-19. He is one of four Knights to have played all 51 games to date (Karlsson, Brayden McNabb and Nick Holden are the others). Despite the early January drought, he still leads the team in goals with 17 and is second on the team in overall points to Alex Tuch with 35.

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What Colin Miller’s Return Means To The Golden Knights – Both Short-Term And Long-Term

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

The return of Colin Miller to the Golden Knights’ lineup should lift the spirits of every VGK fan.

Even if you don’t think he can save the Knights’ listless power play, getting the 26-year-old defenseman back on the ice is huge, both in the short term and especially long-term.

Miller missed 13 games after being injured Dec. 17 at Columbus. He confirmed after Saturday’s 7-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins that he had a concussion and given the length of time he was out, that makes sense. As we learned with Marc-Andre Fleury last year, you don’t cut corners with concussions. You let the brain heal, you get your bearings back and only then, when you are ready, do you return to the ice.

It’s crazy, four weeks feel like a year off. It’s definitely a different injury. It’s one of those things you have to deal with. It’s my first one in the pros. It’s a frustrating process because it’s such a slow process sometimes. You just have to make sure your body’s right. -Colin Miller

It was a very good performance. He logged just under 19 minutes of ice time, had two assists, was a plus-3, took six shots though only one was a shot on goal, blocked a shot and had a couple of hits. Best of all, he had no issues after the game.

Yeah. It’s just that when you’re off for that long you’re going to have a little bit of hiccups getting back into that. You know then the game starts to come together. -Miller

Yes, Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt did a good job filling in for Miller for more than a month while he recovered. And for Merrill, it appears he’s going back to the press box as a healthy scratch for now. He’ll handle it professionally and he showed he is worth keeping around.

So why is it really important that Miller is back?

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

He is one of the team’s best skaters and can move the puck out of his own end with his wheels. He also knows where his forwards want the puck and he is adept at getting it to them in the right spots.

He also brings some continuity back to the blue line. Gerard Gallant paired Miller with Nick Holden and that means he’s part of the third defensive pairing and it means he doesn’t deal with the opposition’s top forwards as often as Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb do. Though with the Penguins, he found himself dealing with Geno Malkin and Phil Kessel, two top forwards. So with Miller’s return, the third pairing has bolstered the overall lineup.

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The Prelude To The Sequel?

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

Watching Tuesday’s first meeting between the Golden Knights and Winnipeg Jets reminded me just how good the hockey is when these two teams get together.

It’s a fast-skating, hard-hitting, opportunistic kind of game. The atmosphere at the Bell MTS Place is amazing, just like it is at T-Mobile Arena. You can see both teams have a mutual respect for each other.

And they should. Both have been smartly built by their general managers. Both are well-coached. Both are always prepared. Both are playing at a high level despite key injuries.

Which begs the question: If you’re a Golden Knights fan, would you sign up right now for a sequel of last year’s Western Conference Finals?

Damn right you would. Ditto if you’re just a fan of the sport.

Tuesday may have been a prelude for what could happen this spring. The Jets prevailed 4-1 on the strength of a short-handed goal and pair of final-minute empty-netters. The Knights, despite a team-record 26 second-period shots and seven power-play opportunities, managed to get just one of their 43 shots by Jets backup goalie Laurent Brossoit. He is 10-0-1 as a starter this year and has won seven straight.

You know what, I like periods like that. I like games like that where I’m tested early and often. The second period was definitely one of those and it got me into the game. There’s not a lot of rest in between. I like that. -Brossoit

Yeah, the Knights ran into a hot goaltender. It happens. Think of all the opponents who mutter to themselves on the bench when they face Marc-Andre Fleury. But the Knights can take solace in the fact they went into a tough building, fell behind 2-0, kept battling, made it a one-goal game thanks to you-know-who (more on him in a moment) and had plenty of chances to gain a point or two.

If there’s a postseason rematch, will the Knight cut another Jet in half? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But that’s what makes things so compelling when I watch the Knights and the Jets. The matchups are great. The coaching battle so acute.

These two teams have two more meetings left in the regular season, both in Las Vegas — Feb. 22 and March 21.— and I would anticipate it’ll be more of the same. Hopefully, it leads to another meeting in the postseason.

By then, I would like to think Jonathan Marchessault will have scored again and William Karlsson will have registered a point. The team’s No. 2 and 3 scorers are trying to battle through some tough times. Marchessault has just one goal in his last 10 games while Karlsson has just one point since Christmas and has been held off the scoresheet for eight straight games, his longest drought as a member of VGK.

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The Jon Merrill The Golden Knights Hoped For Has Finally Arrived

**Steve Carp’s twice-weekly column publishes every Wednesday and Sunday during the Golden Knights season.** 

When the Golden Knights took Jon Merrill in the NHL expansion draft from New Jersey a couple of years ago, they basically were betting on the come.

Merrill had a little NHL experience. But the former University of Michigan defenseman could do a lot of things. He could skate. He could move the puck. He could take the body. He had good size. Basically, there were enough tools in the box for general manager George McPhee to take a shot.

And he didn’t cost a lot either. According to CapFriendly.com, Merrill was scheduled to make only $1,137,500 for 2017-18, so it was well within GMGM’s budget.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

But Merrill didn’t get a chance to show he was ready to be an NHL regular. In 34 games last season, he averaged just over 16 minutes of ice time, had one goal and two assists. Many fans thought he wouldn’t be back for 2018-19.

However, he had a lot going for him. There was the salary. He was only 26. He was a good soldier and was liked by his teammates and coaches. It was more a matter of opportunity.

And when Nate Schmidt was suspended for the first 20 games of the season, Merrill got his chance. Coach Gerard Gallant paired him with Nick Holden, the free agent the Knights had acquired over the summer and who had essentially replaced Luca Sbisa.

But the pair struggled to find chemistry early. They were vulnerable in their own end. They made questionable decisions in when to pinch to keep the play alive in the offensive zone. And the skeptics figured Merrill would be the scapegoat and would be sent to the minors or just waived outright.

Yet, he stuck around after Schmidt returned Nov. 18. He didn’t see a lot of ice time and was a healthy scratch for 17 games of an 18-game stretch. But he never stopped working and assistant coach Ryan McGill, who works with the defensemen, kept Merrill engaged and didn’t let his confidence sag. At some point, another opportunity would present itself.

And it did. On Dec. 17, Colin Miller sustained an upper body injury against Columbus. He has been out ever since. But unlike Schmidt’s suspension where Merrill may have played somewhat cautiously, he has been aggressive and sharp. Gallant reunited Holden with Merrill as the third D pairing (Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are the top pair with Deryk Engelland and Shea Theodore the second pairing) and voila! They’ve connected and have been a big part of the Knights’ recent success. The team won seven straight and have won eight of their last 10. The Knights have 60 points, one less than second-place San Jose and two behind first-place Calgary.

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