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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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Scoring Goals, The Only Thing Wrong With VGK PP

One of VGK’s best PP guys has been struggling to score, but the chances have been there. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

The Golden Knights are one for their last 24 on the power play. They matched their longest stretch of the season by not scoring a PP goal in six straight games and have dropped to 12th in the league at 18.8% on the season.

So, the obvious question is, what’s going wrong that’s keeping the Golden Knights from converting?

The answer, and please don’t want to hurt me when you read this, is nothing. The power play has actually been quite good except for the end product. They’ve been successfully entering the zone with regularity, they’ve won a majority of face-offs, they’ve spent most of their man-advantage time in the offensive zone, and they’ve created a ton of chances, many Grade A+.

In the 24 power play opportunities, the Golden Knights have created 46 scoring chances, 24 of them high danger (according to NaturalStatTrick.com). That’s almost two chances per PP and at least one of them either in the blue paint or right around it.

I watched all 24 power plays and counted just two that I would consider below average. More than 15 were what I consider good or great.

Here are four examples of great chances that aren’t converted into goals.

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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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Are The Golden Knights Better Than Last Year?

Last year? We’re better, I think we’re a better team. -Jonathan Marchessault

Best inaugural season ever, 109 points, 29-10-2 at home, Pacific Division Champions, Western Conference Champions, you know it all, I just type it because it’s fun to remember, so let’s keep going…

They won eight of the first nine in franchise history and never lost more than three in a row until the final four games of the year. They had a 13-game point streak mostly during a 12-1-1 month of December. They put up five five-game win streaks including two in the playoffs and went 13-3 in the first 16 playoff games.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

What I’m trying to say is the 2017-18 Vegas Golden Knights were damn good, yet, one of their best players is not afraid to say this team is better.

And, he’s probably right.

I went around the locker room asking players and the head coach the exact same question. “Do you think your team now is as good as they were at any point last year?”

Many guys kind of danced around the question saying last year is last year, but you could tell, the insinuation that this team is as good, if not better, wasn’t a crazy thought.

I like this team. The parity around the league is good, there’s no easy night, but I always feel confident that we have a good chance to win. -Marc-Andre Fleury

We have a lot of similarities and we are striving to play as well as we did last year, are we there yet, I don’t know.  -Bellemare

The most direct, before I spoke to Marchessault, was from Alex Tuch, who didn’t hesitate when he said. “Yeah, I really do believe so.” He couldn’t really put into words how or why (mainly because he didn’t want to disparage anyone from last year’s team, understandably), but you could tell he believed it.

Then there was the head coach.

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The Golden Knights Keep Finding Ways To Win, Even Without Key Pieces

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

Remember when I talked to Bill Foley a few weeks ago and asked him about Colin Miller? Remember his response?

But he’ll be back pretty quick. I just talked to him and he should be back soon. -Foley

“Pretty quick” has turned into “Quite a while” for the Golden Knights’ defenseman. He is an important part of this team and for him to be out of the lineup taxes everyone else on the VGK blue line.

Yet the Knights continue to win. They beat the New York Rangers 4-2 Tuesday night at T-Mobile Arena for their seventh straight win. They’re tied for first place with Calgary in the Pacific Division and are at the top of the Western Conference race with 58 points heading into Thursday’s huge game with San Jose at T-Mobile. The Sharks trail the Knights by a point.

And it’s not just Miller that VGK has been missing. They’ve had to do without Max Pacioretty, William Carrier and Reilly Smith along with Miller. Pacioretty is back and he has taken Smith’s spot on the top line with William Karlsson (Happy belated 26th birthday Wild Bill!) and Jonathan “Bleepin Spider Monkey” Marchessault. Who knows how long Smith will be out? So let’s see how Patches fares with his new linemates. He looked pretty good Tuesday, working hard as always, standing up for Karlsson after he was hit from behind by Tony DeAngelo in the second period.

And while Smith’s absence is big, the Knights have enough depth to compensate for his stint on IR. My bigger concern is Miller. He is missed on the power play. He is missed when it comes to joining the rush. He is one of the team’s best skaters and he can recover for his partner, or himself and get back in the play.

Miller has not played since sustaining an upper-body injury Dec. 17 at Columbus. Tuesday was the 10th game he missed. He has skated sporadically on his own at City National Arena in the last week but there’s nothing to indicate he’s close to rejoining the lineup.

When you see him taking a turn in practice in a grey defenseman’s practice sweater, that’s when you’ll know Miller is close to getting back to playing in games.

Yet it feels like he’s not missed. So how are the Knights winning without a valuable cog in their lineup?

It begins and ends with Marc-Andre Fleury.

No. 29 continues to play at an elite level and he can cover for his teammates’ miscues. He’ll tell you he’s just doing his job. But it’s more than that. He’s inspiring confidence in his teammates. They know they can screw up occasionally and have Fleury cover for them. It has been that way since Day One of the franchise.

Even backup Malcolm Subban has done very good things when he’s between the pipes. When your goalies are playing well, it gives everyone a little more boost of energy because you don’t want to let them down.

And let’s give some credit to Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt, who have alternated filling in for Miller. Merrill has played in seven of the team’s last eight contests and he has proven to be relatively reliable playing with Nick Holden. The two struggled together when they were paired together early in the season when Nate Schmidt was sitting out his 20-game suspension.

But Schmidt has played extremely well since his return in late November and having him out there logging the heavy minutes he normally does helps the entire defense corps. Merrill and Holden are back together and they seem more comfortable as a pairing and maybe the fact Holden has settled in has something to do with it.

Deryk Engelland said it’s all about everyone just doing their job. If you’re inserted into the lineup, whether you’re a defenseman or a forward, you’re expected to fit in.

I think we’ve kept things simple and playing as a five-man unit, like we did last year. The guys have done a really good job filling in (for Miller) and we’ve done that all season. When guys have gone out, it’s given other guys a chance to step up and play more minutes. -Engelland

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Gallant Is Protecting Pirri, Allowing Him To Thrive

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Through seven games and 97:22 of ice time, the Golden Knights have not allowed a goal with Brandon Pirri on the ice. In that same span, Vegas has a 64% Corsi For, created 67 scoring chances, and have scored 11 times.

In short, when Pirri is on the ice, good things happen.

That’s my role, that’s why I signed and that’s why they signed me here. I’ve got to stick to my strengths. Turk’s put me in a fantastic position to succeed, playing with two really skilled guys. Stas finds me and Tuchy creates space. -Brandon Pirri

That middle part interested me when I heard it, “put me in a fantastic position to succeed.” Pirri went on to mention his linemates, but the in-game situations he’s found himself in are even more telling than his linemates. Pirri has been on the ice for 83 faceoffs, only 17 of them have been taken inside of the Golden Knights zone.

That equates to a 74.4% offensive zone draw percentage (Offensive zone draws divided by Offensive+Defensive zone draws). The next closest player is Brad Hunt at 67.8%, then there’s not another player on the team at over 66%. Pirri’s linemates, Alex Tuch and Paul Stastny are at 65.1% and 54.0% respectively.

Also, late in games, Gallant has decided not to use Pirri. In Pirri’s seven games, five of them have seen the score within one goal in the last 10 minutes of regulation. In those five games, Pirri has played in 84 shifts, only 10 of them have occurred in the final 10 minutes of the game, and only once did he play more than one regular shift (at least 40 seconds) at the end of a game.

Bellemare is a specialty in that situation. If we’re down a goal, Pirri will be on the ice. When we’re up a goal, you put four defensive guys out there and Bellemare and those type of players deserve to be on the ice at that time of the game. -Gerard Gallant

I asked specifically about the most recent game, a win over Los Angeles, in which Pirri played a total of :52 in the final eight minutes of action.

I mean we scored, made it one-nothing and they had a great chance right after that on the breakaway but you usually get down to six or seven minutes and I want certain guys on the ice and the guys know that so we shorten it a little bit and guys go out there and do their jobs. -Gallant

I looked through a number of games last season, and couldn’t find an example of Gallant removing one of his top six (Marchessault, Karlsson, Smith, Haula, Neal, Perron) at the end of a game as he has with Pirri. In fact, there’s almost the exact same scenario in a game on January 7th, 2018 against the Rangers as we saw on January 1st, 2019 against the Kings.

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The Approaching New Year Doesn’t Mean A New Start For The Golden Knights

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

LOS ANGELES — The calendar turns the page to 2019 on Tuesday and for most of us it’s a chance for a fresh start, an opportunity to change our lives and routines and improve our overall lot.

However, if you’re an NHL team, it doesn’t quite work that way.

By now, the 31 teams have already made their bed, so to speak. And barring collapses or rebirths of epic proportions, the teams at the top and the teams at the bottom of the standings figure to remain in place over the second half of the season.

The idea that Tampa Bay is going to crater seems highly unlikely. The Lightning have dealt with their fair share of injuries yet they remain the NHL’s elite team. Toronto, which is second overall in the NHL and has the misfortune of playing in the same division as Tampa Bay, also doesn’t appear to be in any danger of an imminent collapse. But boy, wouldn’t it be something if the Maple Leafs did indeed nosedive and somehow miss the postseason? The reaction from Leafs Nation would be insane.

Instead, the most rabid fans are already planning a Stanley Cup parade down Yonge Street in Toronto.

What about the Golden Knights, you ask? Patience, SinBinners. I’ll get to your beloved team in a moment.

At the other end of the spectrum, the likelihood the improved Kings can rally and make the playoffs is slim. Even with the better effort they’ve given Willie Desjardins since he took over for John Stevens, the Kings appear to have dug too deep a hole to climb out of. Especially since Calgary continues to play at a high level and the Flames have responded well to first-year coach Bill Peters.

Ok, so now let’s talk about the Golden Knights.

Vegas is weathering the storm of injuries and have positioned itself to be a postseason participant. They have been doing it with key pieces missing (you know who they are) and the fact is the Knights are managing to fill the void with some very nice individual efforts.

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Cody Eakin had a strong first half as he filled in for Paul Stastny and Erik Haula on the second line. Will Carrier and Ryan Reaves have given the bottom six some unexpected scoring. Alex Tuch has emerged as a quality power forward. William Karlsson has found his mojo after a slow start.

The return of Nate Schmidt helped the entire team. Nick Holden’s play has gotten better as he has gotten more comfortable.

Brandon Pirri is making the most of his opportunity since being called up from Chicago (I’m not counting the Christmas “demotion” which was basically George McPhee using the rules to his advantage).

And of course, Marc-Andre Fleury is playing like an All-Star, which he should be when the rosters are announced in a week or two.

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When Gallant Wants A Faceoff, He Turns To Paul Stastny

(Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

File this one away into the “something to keep an eye on” category for the future. Midway through the 3rd period against Colorado, while the game was still tied at one, there was a face-off in the Golden Knights zone following a TV timeout.

Because the Golden Knights were at home, they have “last change” meaning at every stoppage of play, the Avalanche pick the players they are going to put on the ice and then Vegas gets to choose theirs. So, the reigning Jack Adams award winner Gerard Gallant knew the Colorado top line was set to take the next shift for the Avs.

Most the of the night Gallant had used either the 1st line or the 3rd line against the Avs dominant top line and both were having success. However, with the draw in his own end, Gallant made a different choice, one he hasn’t made much over the course of his time as head coach of the Golden Knights.

He sent Paul Stastny out to take the draw with a line of William Karlsson and Reilly Smith. Stastny won the faceoff, helped get the puck clear, and immediately came off the ice for Jonathan Marchessault who played the rest of the shift with his regular teammates.

I kinda knew going into the game if I was feeling good on the faceoff dot that I would be taking a lot of draws. -Paul Stastny

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Christmas Break Odds And Ends

The Golden Knights have the next three days completely off, meaning no games, practice, and no media availability. They currently sit in 3rd place in the Pacific Division with 44 points in 39 games. That’s one point behind the 2nd place Sharks and one ahead of the 4th place Ducks.

There are a few topics I wanted to discuss but none of them garnered a full article. So, we cram them all into one and call it a day. Here we go.

Brandon Pirri Re-Assigned to AHL

Gone now, but for how long? (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Following the overtime loss to the Kings last night the Golden Knights re-assigned Brandon Pirri to the Chicago Wolves. In doing so they also took Max Pacioretty off IR.

Just looking at the moves, this would lead most to believe that Pacioretty will return Thursday and will be slotted back into his normal place in the lineup. That may happen, but it also may not, and Pirri might wind up right back on the 2nd line despite being re-assigned a few days earlier.

Per NHL rules, if a player clears waivers, which Pirri did on October 4th, they must play 10 games or be on the active NHL roster for 30 days before they are eligible for waivers again. Pirri was recalled to the Golden Knights on December 18th and played in games on the 20th, 22nd, and 23rd before being re-assigned on the 23rd. Thus, he’s played three games and spent five days on the roster.

By optioning him back to the Wolves during this three-day break, the Golden Knights still have six available games and 24 days before he must re-clear waivers. The clock is cumulative, so even if this stint with the Golden Knights is over, it restarts if he is called back up again.

What all of this is trying to say is that there’s a practical reason to send Pirri down to the AHL even if VGK intends to play him on Thursday. It may or may not happen, but unlike most situations when a player is returned to the AHL, this one does not necessarily mean his time with the Golden Knights is up.

Struggles Without Main Defensemen

It was well-documented how much the Golden Knights missed Nate Schmidt during his 20 game suspension. They went just 8-11-1 and were much closer to the basement of the Pacific than they were the top.

VGK proving they can’t be without 6 or 88. (Photo Credit: SinBin.vegas Photographer Brandon Andreasen)

Over the past two games, they’ve gone 0-0-2 at home while missing Colin Miller due to an upper-body injury.

Deryk Engelland has missed six games this season, the Golden Knights are 3-2-1 in those games.

Brayden McNabb, Shea Theodore, and Nick Holden have played in all 39 games

When Miller and Schmidt are both in the lineup, Vegas is 12-4-1. When one or the other is missing they are 8-11-3.

Defensive depth is clearly an issue that needs to be addressed, whether that be via trade or by giving some of the young AHL prospects a chance. Either way, something needs to be done because no team makes it through the playoffs with just six defensemen.

Long Shifts

Vegas has 13 players, including nine forwards that average 0:50 or more per shift. There are only 118 NHL skaters that average 0:50 or more

The Golden Knights have 10 players in the top 100 in the NHL in this category.

Jonathan Marchessault and Alex Tuch lead the team with 0:56 average per shift while Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith, Paul Stastny, and William Karlsson all average at least 0:53.

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