**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2021 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**
You know the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for?” Normally, there would be a lot of concern with the Golden Knights facing the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s hockey’s “Clash of the Titans” and someone is going to be bitterly disappointed when all is said and done.
But if you’re a true hockey fan, this is the matchup you want to see. Two of the NHL’s best, going head-to-head, with the winner moving on to the semifinals and a big hurdle in the quest for the Cup having been cleared.
I know I’m looking forward to Knights-Avs. The eight games they played during the regular season were fun to watch. And even though Colorado won the season series (4-3-1) it doesn’t mean the Knights are at a distinct disadvantage. Yes, they are the betting underdog in this series for only the second time in their brief four-year history (they were underdogs to Winnipeg in the 2018 Western Conference Finals), but that is something the players and coach Peter DeBoer will no doubt embrace, if for no other reason but to take some of the pressure off themselves.
They can do whatever psychological gymnastics they want. But they are good enough to win this series and move on. Here’s why:
Max is back
The return of Max Pacioretty to the lineup in Friday’s Game 7 vs. the Wild gave the entire team an emotional lift. He hadn’t played since May 1st and he admitted he had encountered some setbacks along the way in trying to get back on the ice.
But he made it back. He also scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal to clinch the opening round over the Wild and it was a Willis Reed moment for the franchise.
Who’s Willis Reed you ask? He was the captain of the New York Knicks who injured his hip in Game 5 of the 1970 NBA Finals vs. the Lakers. He missed Game 6, which the Knicks lost, but limped out onto the court just prior to Game 7. He hit his first two shots, the Knicks rode an emotional wave to crush the Lakers and win the NBA title.
Having Pacioretty back does a couple of things. First, it restores order to the lines. With him back skating with Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson, it allows Alex Tuch to return to play with Nicolas Roy and Mattias Janmark, making the third line much stronger.
Second, it gives DeBoer a powerful line of his own to match Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen. It also forces Avs coach Jared Bednar to match up against the Stephenson line.
In the eight games vs. Colorado, Vegas scored a total of 18 goals. Of those 18, Pacioretty had six of them plus two assists while playing in seven of the eight meetings. So yeah, he’s kinda important in a series with the Avalanche.
Shea Wakes Up
Everyone was worried about Shea Theodore’s lack of offense through the first six games of the Minnesota series. But in Game 7, Theodore had a pair of assists and looked like his old self activating into the attack. Maybe this will get him going.
Theodore does for the Knights what Cale Makar does for the Avalanche. He can create offense when he has possession of the puck and make plays that lead to scoring chances.
Theodore should be more effective in this series as he shouldn’t encounter the kind of traffic Minnesota set up in the neutral zone. He likely will get better looks and if nothing else, that wrist shot of his may create rebound opportunities for the Vegas forwards, assuming they can get to the front of the Avs’ net.
Nazem Kadri is appealing his eight-game suspension from the opening round when he broadsided St. Louis’ Justin Faulk with a targeted hit to Faulk’s head. But there’s the likelihood the Knights don’t see Kadri on the ice and that’s huge in this series.
When he’s not playing like a cementhead, Kadri is a skilled, tough center to play against. The 30-year-old veteran had 11 goals and 21 assists this season and he takes a lot of pressure off MacKinnon’s line when he’s contributing offensively. The Avs really don’t have anyone with the skills to replace those goals and points and it will make life easier for Vegas to not have to deal with him.
Kadri has served two of the eight games and is waiting for NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to rule on his appeal. If the suspension stays as is, the only way the Knights deal with Kadri is if the series goes seven games.
Fleury’s Locked In — But Lehner’s ready
There was speculation DeBoer was going to change goaltenders for Game 7 Friday. But he stuck with Marc-Andre Fleury and Fleury delivered a strong performance in the 6-2 win that sent the Knights on to Round Two.
Assuming Fleury came out of the first round in good shape physically, I would think we’ll see him for the majority of this series. But, VGK appear to be going with Lehner in Game 1, similar to the plan they deployed in the series against the Stars.
Lehner is well-rested. He is in a good place emotionally (did you see him throw his hat on the ice when Janmark got his hat trick late in Game 7?) And in the one game he played against Colorado this year (a 2-1 loss on May 10), he played well and the loss wasn’t his fault. He can give Fleury a chance to regroup physically and DeBoer can bring him back for Game 2 Wednesday if Lehner falters in Game 1.
It’s a new series against a new opponent. There’s been little recovery time between Friday to today as the team flew to Denver Saturday. Management says it has two No. 1 goalies. Here’s a chance for Lehner to play and contribute.
The roster is almost whole
With the return of Pacioretty and Ryan Reaves, the Knights get two experienced players with unique skillsets back in the lineup. They also have to expect they’ll get Brayden McNabb back at some point after McNabb tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the last two games of the first round.
The COVID thing is tricky. You’re relying on labs to get the results right and the Knights have dealt with their share of false positives this season. GM Kelly McCrimmon said Saturday the team meets the NHL’s vaccination threshold of 85%. But remember, you can still test positive despite being vaccinated.
The team has also done a good job of managing whatever is ailing defenseman Alec Martinez, who has to be banged up from blocking all those shots. Martinez had a team-best 26 blocked shots in the series vs. Minnesota and keeping him on the ice is essential if the Knights hope to defeat Colorado, especially if McNabb isn’t going to be available.
GMKM was asked about Peyton Krebs’ availability for this series. Unfortunately, Krebs’ broken jaw will keep him out vs. the Avs. But should the Knights advance, he might be able to play. That would be huge from a depth perspective.
No one asked about Tomas Nosek’s availability. But Patrick Brown has done a good job on centering the fourth line so not having Nosek isn’t as critical as having Pacioretty back.
Also, the Silver Knights’ season ended Saturday so anyone from that roster would be available on an as-needed basis.
So with so many positives going for them, why should you be concerned about the Golden Knights inning this series?
They’re going to have to keep MacKinnon in check and not let him dominate. Think what Winnipeg did to limit Connor McDavid and it was a big reason the Oilers are done. DeBoer has options, like playing Tuch and Janmark against MacKinnon’s line. He used Tuch against MacKinnon a couple of times during the regular season and it was effective.
The Knights are going to have to win at least one game at Ball Arena in Denver. Yes, they won twice in St. Paul in the first round. Yes, they do have a win in Denver from the regular season. But that was in an empty building on what was essentially a back-to-back after the debacle of an outdoor game in Lake Tahoe. This time, the Avs will have a sizable crowd. They’ll be loud and just like the Wild had to deal with that Friday with 12,156 in the Fortress, the Knights have to go into enemy territory and find a way to win at least one game as Colorado has home-ice advantage.
As for matching lines, I think DeBoer won’t overthink it when he has the last change in Vegas. He has confidence in his four lines and his D pairs. But maybe we don’t see Alex Pietrangelo on the ice vs. MacKinnon so as not to have another “Oh boy” moment.
As is always the case with two evenly matched teams such as these, it comes down to the little things. Whose special teams will be clicking? Who is winning the faceoffs, particularly the ones in their end? Who is not crossing the line or taking stupid offensive zone penalties?
The Knights tend to be more physical and I would expect them to try and take the body as often as possible, if for no other reason but to try and slow Colorado down. The Avs can hit you too and Vegas needs to brace for having the favor returned to it.
In the end, it’ll be the goaltending that decides it. Philipp Grubauer can steal a series but he’s also capable of struggling. I still can’t get out of my mind his being yanked in the first round of the 2018 playoffs vs. Columbus while with Washington as Barry Trotz opted for Braden Holtby. And we all know what happened as a result.
I don’t see Devan Dubnyk stepping into the breach if Grubauer falters and saving the Avs. I do think either Lehner or Fleury can bail the Knights out if the other guy gets hurt or is off his game.
With that in mind, I expect a great series with the Golden Knights finding a way to win at least once on the road and ultimately advance to the NHL’s Final Four by winning in six. Besides, Ken needs to sell more T-shirts and do more #HockeySquares so the least the Knights can do is help him out by extending their season another couple of weeks.
**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.**