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
Merrill appears to be more confident. He’s making good reads and good decisions, both with and without the puck. He’s been a little more aggressive in front of his net, getting a stick on a stick or tying up an opponent and he’s reading the cross-ice pass better.
Hunt has been run in and out of the lineup by Gerard Gallant. But he’s had two assists in his last two games and he’s always going to play a smart, safe, low-risk game.
Collectively, they’ve done a very good job in the wake of Miller’s absence.
Yeah, (Merrill’s) played real well. We know what he is, he’s doing a great job and I think he’s playing great hockey for us. Big time, he’s stepping in and playing really solid hockey. I think tonight he played real well, but I liked him the last number of games. So he was really solid and moves the puck well but I really liked him a lot. -Gallant
Up front, the scoring exploits of Brandon Pirri have obviously factored into the team’s recent run. He scored again Tuesday and now has seven goals in eight games and he’s also become a huge fan favorite.
I’m not even going to fathom a guess as to his status going forward. But with Smith on IR and likely to miss a few games, it seems logical that Pirri is here to stay. Though I would expect Carrier to be ready to play Saturday in Chicago after his bout with the flu as he comes off IR. And at some point Valentin Zykov is going to get into the lineup.
Thursday is the final game Pirri can play before he is no longer waiver exempt. If he plays Saturday, he’ll become just like everyone else, in that he’ll have to clear waivers to get back to the AHL. George McPhee will have to make a decision, but I’ll let Ken delve into that, “reading into” stuff is what he does best.
The forwards, Pirri included, have done a good job defensively too. And while it may not be a conscious effort to help compensate for Milller’s absence, it has been a contributing factor during the Knights’ recent successful streak.
Yeah, we just played a lot better hockey. More energized. We are forechecking well. We are playing good D-zone coverage, so I like the way our game is. It’s not about our forwards trying to help the D out because Colin’s out. It’s got nothing to do with it. It’s whoever is playing, we try to play the same team game every night and that’s what’s important for our group. When we play that game we are a pretty good team. -Gallant
Jonathan Marchessault gave the credit to Merrill and Hunt and the rest of the D.
Yeah he’s a big part of our group. He’s really good offensively, but plays hard in the defensive zone. We’re pretty happy with guys like Jon Merrill and Brad Hunt when they fill in. They come in an do an awesome job and they’re great players. -Marchessault
As for Miller, he’s no longer one of the Knights’ “Iron Men.” But he is going to be needed sooner than later if the Knights are serious about making another Stanley Cup run this spring. And while everyone should be enjoying the current win streak, the reality is they can’t win the Cup without him.
Just a reminder, I’ll be doing the first of two January book signings this Saturday (Jan. 12) from noon to 3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble in Summerlin located near Whole Foods at 8915 West Charleston Boulevard near Fort Apache.
I’ll also be appearing on the AT&T SportsNet telecast between the second and third period of Thursday’s game vs. the Sharks to promote the Jan. 19 book signing at The Arsenal at City National Arena. I’ll be signing copies of “Vegas Born” from 10:30 a.m., right after the morning skate prior to the Penguins game that night, until 12:30 p.m.
Hope all the SinBinners come out for either event. Would love to meet all of you and talk hockey and VGK, and yes, sell you a book.
Incidentally, if you already purchased a copy and would like me to sign it, bring it to either event and I’ll be more than glad to autograph it for you.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**