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Time To Break Up The Top Six

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Last night was an eye-opener for the 2018-19 Golden Knights. After a tough loss against the Arizona Coyotes, the fourth straight at home, Gerard Gallant delivered a strong message in the locker room following the game. The team followed it up with a lengthy, competitive practice on Friday and then went without morning skate on Saturday. It appeared they had hit rock bottom and appeared primed to start the turnaround.

Last year’s team had its moments too, but every time they would come back, play great, and win. This team didn’t.

Instead, this team got outmanned in a game they simply came up short in the talent department. The foursome of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, William Nyander, and Mitch Marner scored three goals and tallied seven points while the entire Golden Knights top six (Karlsson, Marchessault, Smith, Stastny, Tuch, and Pacioretty) had two goals and four points with half of that damage coming on a shorthanded goal.

The VGK 2nd line was a combined -8 and the 1st line put up a miserable 25% Corsi For percentage as a group. Matthews’ line ate up Stastny, Pacioretty and Tuch scoring twice and posting seven scoring chances to Vegas’ one. All in all the Golden Knights top six played 20 of the 36 minutes of even strength action and accounted for one goal while allowing three and created just seven scoring chances compared to Toronto’s 17 while they were on the ice.

Here’s the good news. Despite all of it, and while playing the worst hockey in franchise history, the Golden Knights were right there. They had a lead in the 2nd, tied the game in the 3rd, and had a power play chance to take the lead inside of 15 minutes remaining in the game. This is still the same team that posted 60 points in their first 48 games and positioned themselves safely in the playoff picture.

With just four games before the trade deadline, it’s time the Golden Knights look in the mirror and realize they have to win with balance. No longer is their first line so dominant that they can be relied upon to not only shut down the oppositions top line but score while they’re at it. They can’t expect their 2nd line to pick up the slack left behind by the inevitable regression of that 1st line. They need to return to what became their identity last year and what was at times earlier this season. A balanced attack that never stops applying pressure.

The best way to do that, break up the top six.

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Pacioretty: “There’s No Panic”

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Max Pacioretty has been through it all. In 626 NHL games played, the 30-year-old veteran has seen winning streaks, losing streaks, and overall bad stretches of play. Just last season, his former team, the Montreal Canadiens, started the year losing eight of their first ten games. On top of that, the Habs had six losing streaks of four-games or more.

So a four-game home losing streak when his team is comfortably in the playoffs isn’t going to rattle a player like Pacioretty, nor should it rattle the fans.

Every great team has to face adversity at some point or another… hopefully we can build off this experience here and rally around it. Eventually we use that to our advantage. We haven’t been playing the right way, and a little bit of a wake up call needs to jump start us here. -Pacioretty

Now deep into his first campaign with the Golden Knights, Pacioretty understands and appreciates the passionate fanbase. Which is why he’s reaching out to the Vegas faithful, and telling them to take a deep breath. The players are confident that they’ll break out of this current skid, and go on to play strong hockey at home.

We have a tremendous advantage playing at home in front of our fans. We want to make sure we maintain that by playing good hockey in front of them. -Pacioretty

Cliche or not, every NHL team has its share of ups and downs over an 82 game regular schedule. Which is why the average point total for a team that wins the Presidents Trophy is 115.5 regular season points. Even the best of the best go on losing streaks.

No. There’s no panic -Pacioretty

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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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Top Line Reboot

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Heading into this season the Golden Knights top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith were expected to lead the charge. A combined +116 with 92 goals a year ago between just the three had them as one of the best lines in all of hockey.

The chemistry they had in the regular season extended into the playoffs. It picked right back up when the trio was reunited in preseason to start this year. 20+ games in, the numbers weren’t quite as staggering as a year ago, but there was no question Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith were the best line the Golden Knights had and remained a force to be reckoned with.

But recently, it’s hit the skids. Prior to the game in Detroit, the last time Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith all had a point in the same game was on December 14th (a stretch of 12 games playing together and 23 total). Smith’s injury put a halt to the line altogether, but even before it, the previous 10 games they were together, they managed just 10 total points and only five goals. As importantly, the defense appeared to be slipping as well.

During Smith’s absence, it did not improve for Marchessault and Karlsson, instead it got much worse. The pair combined for five goals in nine games (four of which were scored in the same game), just four assists, and they posted a miserable -17 over the three-week span.

Yet, when Smith was ready, he wasn’t put back on the line with Marchessault and Karlsson, instead, Gallant gave them Valentin Zykov for a couple games, and there was a level of success. However, midway through the game in Detroit, following a penalty kill, Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith found themselves on the ice together once again, and it looked like the old days again.

They were a combined +5 in Thursday’s game, scored three goals and had five points, but more importantly, their shifts were dominant almost every time they touched the ice.

It wasn’t really a plan, I didn’t think the line was going as good as it could have, so sometimes you shake things up a little bit and piss people off a little bit maybe. It works sometimes. -Gerard Gallant

I’m not sure who Gallant was trying to “piss off” but it appeared to work… at least for one night.

It feels like a reboot and sometimes that’s just what a line needs. A fresh start, which they now have.

They’ve been real good. They’re finding some life there a little bit and I thought the last game was excellent. It’s all about timing, and I expect them to be good for the next 25 games. -Gallant

Tonight is a tough test against a terrific defensive team in the Blue Jackets. The last two times Vegas has faced Columbus, the Golden Knights scored a total of one goal.

However, the time before, the only trip Columbus has made to T-Mobile Arena, Vegas dropped six on them, including two from Karlsson and a pair of assists from Marchessault.

The Golden Knights need Marchessault, Karlsson, and Smith to produce, whether they’re playing together or not. For now, they’re reunited. Hopefully, it keeps feeling as good as it did Thursday night in Detroit.

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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Why Valentin Zykov Deserves To Keep His Spot On VGK’s Top Line

Dude hasn’t played enough for Brandon to get a picture. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

In somewhat of a surprising move, Gerard Gallant moved Valentin Zykov up to the first line to play with William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault. Zykov has been waived as many times as he’d played in a Golden Knights uniform, yet there he was playing on a line that was considered one of the best in the NHL a year ago and the decision wasn’t forced by injury.

In the game against Florida, he was on the ice for a career-high 17:32, recorded three shots, created multiple scoring chances, and registered three hits. He was also a -1, had three giveaways, and posted a 50% Corsi For. The Golden Knights did not score with Zykov on the ice.

Yet, here we are, heading into a Tuesday night game against the best team in the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning, mired in a four-game losing streak, and Gallant has once again put Zykov back on the line with Karlsson and Marchessault.

Having watched the game live I remember thinking Zykov had a few good chances, helped create a few others, but overall was far from memorable in the game. But when I saw him back on that line in practice and I figured I must have missed something. He must have done well enough to keep the spot. So, I went back and watched all 16 shifts Zykov took and not only do I agree with Gallant, but I thought he was the best player on the line… by far.

Of the 16 shifts, I counted 12 that I would consider him having a positive impact, with four of those 12 being majorly positive. Karlsson’s positive shift number was eight, Marchessault’s was five in the same 16 shifts.

What really jumped off the page for me while watching was his ability to get the puck off the wall and onto a teammates stick quickly. Here are a few examples…

Both of those instantly opened up the ice for William Karlsson. Nothing came of either, but these type of quick accurate plays are what the Golden Knights do when they are at their best.

It wasn’t just off the walls either. Here’s a terrific pass through the neutral zone to spring a break and eventually lead to two of his three shots.

Almost every shift he made a pass that advanced the puck quickly. Unfortunately, most of the time Karlsson and Marchessault were unable to do much with it. Here are a couple more examples of that. 

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Scoring First Not What It Used To Be For Golden Knights

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Last season was an absolute walk in the park for Golden Knights fans. I think we can all admit that now after going through this season’s roller coaster of emotions. Sure, Vegas is a top contender for the Stanley Cup again but it’s been much more stressful for Golden Knights fans.

We’ve got to find a way to get out of this slump and get back on the winning side by working hard, doing little things, simple things and playing our game in a fast way, good compete level and we should be alright. -Marc Andre Fleury

The Golden Knights are still on pace for a playoff invite but this current four-game skid has frustrated many. Including the team.

Well they better be frustrated because they’ve got to play better. They’ve got to play harder and work harder. It’s all about winning hockey games. -Gerard Gallant

One glaring concern for this season’s Golden Knights squad is their inability to win games after scoring first. Last season Vegas was 34-5-2 when they scored first, this season their record is an ordinary 17-10-3 in 54 games played.

The Golden Knights are tied for the second most regulation losses when leading opponents 1-0.

Regulation Losses When Scoring First
Ottawa 11
Vegas 10
New Jersey 10
Pittsburgh 10
Edmonton 9

To make it look even uglier, the Golden Knights are 22nd in the NHL with a mediocre (.567) win% when scoring first. Last season Vegas was second in win% (.829), just ahead of the Washington’s (.811) and right behind Tampa Bay’s (.837) when scoring first. This year, the Golden Knights have the worst win% of any playoff contender in the Western Conference.

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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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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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