X marked the spot Friday as the Golden Knights secured their spot in next month’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. Give a stick tap to the Colorado Avalanche which beat Arizona to allow the Knights to clinch.
Now comes the awkward part that will put Gerard Gallant squarely in the crosshairs. How does he handle the final three games of the season?
If last year is an indication, expect a lot of different lineups.
You may recall Brandon Pirri was called up late in the year and he delivered with goals against Vancouver and Edmonton. Then Reilly Smith returned to the lineup against Calgary and we never saw Pirri again.
We’ve seen Gallant do that already with Valentin Zykov. He gave Zykov a couple of games to get the rust off and he could find himself on the ice, especially considering Paul Stastny, Mark Stone and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare are nicked up and Gallant may opt to put them on the shelf for a day or two.
It is a tricky dance for a coach. On one hand, you want to get your team as physically close to 100 percent as possible. On the other, you want to build some positive momentum going into the playoffs.
But is momentum overrated? Consider the Knights opened the 2018 playoffs against the Kings on the heels of back-to-back losses, 4-3 to the Oilers and the 7-1 debacle vs. the Flames. They went on to sweep L.A. and advance to the conference semifinals against San Jose.
Gallant may have tipped his hand after Friday’s game on how he will handle the final week.
You get ready for every game because if you don’t get ready for the game to play, bad things happen to you. I want us to play well. Again, like I said, we want to play our team game. There are some little nagging injuries. We’re going to make sure what we’re doing now is taking care of that stuff. When we play the game, when the game starts, we’re ready to play hockey. -Gallant
The players don’t figure to go through the motions. Remember, there’s still ice time to earn in the playoffs and there’s a glut of forwards and not everyone can play. Someone’s going to sit.
One thing that needs to change regardless of who is in the lineup is the recent trend of starting games slowly. The Knights let Minnesota get the jump on them Friday and it resulted in chasing the game all evening. And while the final push late nearly got the game tied, the fact is it was a loss to a team that played with more energy and far more desperation. It was almost a carbon copy of Wednesday’s performance against Colorado.
We need to tighten up a little better defensively, just the start of games. I think we lost to Colorado in the first period, tonight (Friday vs. Minnesota) we probably lost the game in the first period. All of a sudden you get yelled at and then you start playing better, but we can’t rely on that. We can’t wait till we are down 2-0 then start playing the game. We need to play the game from the start. -Stastny
Stone echoed similar comments.
We’ve just got to be prepared to play most nights. And obviously you’re going to have nights where you don’t have it, but you have to be prepared when you don’t have it to keep it simple and make the right plays at the right time. You know, the way this league is there’s a ton of parity. Every team is good, every team wants to win so we’ve got to get back to that desperate hockey that we had when teams were closer to us.
Yeah, I mean sometimes you feel like you’re expending maybe a little too much energy when you’re chasing the game. The starts have got to be better for us, ultimately. There are parts of the game where we’re dominating the game, but you can’t spot the other team two goals to start. -Stone
The Knights appeared to have addressed the slow start issue Saturday, jumping out to a 1-0 lead against the Sharks and holding a 2-1 lead in the third period before San Jose rallied to win in overtime, 4-3 in a chippy, physical game that set the tone for a likely first-round playoff matchup.
So what does Gallant specifically do this week to get his team ready to perform at its optimum level for Game One of the playoffs?
For starters, he needs to get Marc-Andre Fleury back in the Vegas net. Malcolm Subban has run hot-and-cold of late, more cold, honestly. He has let in several soft goals and Fleury, who has been off for three weeks now, can use a little work before the playoffs.
Gallant also needs to figure out his bottom six forward lines. He has been mixing and matching Will Carrier, Ryan Carpenter, Zykov and Tomas Nosek. He also could use Pirri, if he’s healthy. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare should be back in the lineup this week (don’t ask me what’s wrong, I have no idea) so there will be stability up the middle as Cody Eakin anchors the third line with Alex Tuch as his right wing.
Of course, this is assuming that Stastny, who was a late scratch Saturday after participating in warmups, is going to be O.K. to play this week. If he’s held out, the juggling act will continue.
Nosek and Carpenter have played well so it makes Gallant’s decision a bit tougher. Carrier is doing good things since he came back last week against Detroit. Ryan Reaves remains a constant on right wing on the fourth line so he’s all set there.
Do you put Carrier back with Bellemare and Reaves and have the team’s top two hits leaders together? Or do you spread the wealth and have Carrier with Eakin and Tuch to give that line a little more speed and physicality? Nosek is more of an offensive threat than Carrier and you could probably say the same thing about Carpenter. But neither has Carrier’s quickness and willingness to bang.
In the playoffs, taking the body is accentuated. It’s a tighter checking game and the teams that win the physical battles in the corners and in front of the net are the ones that are usually on the right side of the handshake line when it’s all said and done.
Saturday was very physical. It was as if the Sharks were trying to send a message to the Knights. The message was received as Reaves and Carrier responded as did their teammates.
Still, Stone limped off after blocking a shot. Ditto for Nate Schmidt. Shea Theodore took a heavy hit. So don’t be surprised if Nick Holden, who took Brayden McNabb’s spot in the lineup Saturday, stays in Monday against the Oilers and either Schmidt or Theodore gets the night off.
Managing bumps and bruises is critical at this time of the year and Gallant will listen to his players and the trainers when making out his lineup card these last three games.
There’s one last wild card in this juggling act of Gallant’s. Actually, two.
Erik Haula has been skating on his own the last couple of weeks. If he joins the team for practice this week, he could be in the lineup, perhaps against the Kings in the season finale Saturday to get his first action since early November when he injured his knee against Toronto.
His return would give Gallant a fresh pair of legs and some additional speed which would serve the Knights well in the postseason. But let’s see what happens over the next few days as to whether Haula will be available.
The other wild card is Cody Glass. Portland was eliminated from the Western Hockey League playoffs by Spokane Saturday, 4-1, (Glass scored the Winterhawks’ lone goal) and the center’s days in juniors is over (he turns 20 on Monday).
Could the Knights’ first-ever draft pick get called up and put on the ice these last three games to get a look? It’s a long shot but you never know. At the very least, he may get to skate with the team during the postseason as one of the Black Aces.
As for this week, the lines may look a bit weird. The D pairings could be different over these final three games. But that’s the reality at this time of the year. Things will return to normal once the playoffs start.
**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.**