**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.**
What on earth is Peter DeBoer going to do?
He will not be able to play the “Us Against The World Underdog Card” as his Golden Knights are a prohibitive 5-to-1 favorite to win their Stanley Cup semifinal series against Montreal, which begins Monday night at the Fortress. I’m guessing he makes a 180-degree turn and tells anyone who’ll listen just how dangerous the Canadiens are, how the Golden Knights are going to have to raise their game another notch or two, how they’re only halfway to their ultimate objective and yada, yada, yada.
Please. Spare me.
DeBoer happens to be coaching a really, really good hockey team, one that’s been built for this very moment. The $8.8 million defenseman is earning his pay (finally!). The future Hall of Fame goaltender is on top of his game. All four lines are scoring. The defensemen are blocking shots, contributing offensively, and doing their jobs.
So let Dominique Ducharme do the talking and embrace the underdog role. He has earned it. PDB just needs to coach his team and get to the Cup Final and be ready to match wits with one of two excellent coaches — either the Lightning’s Jon Cooper or the Islanders’ Barry Trotz, the latter who knows how to beat the Knights when the big money is on the line.
There. I’ve vented.
Now, on to the semis and how the Knights will get this done.
If you thought the Colorado series would come down to goaltending (it ultimately did), the Habs-Knights matchup is all about the goalies. Carey Price has rediscovered his game and he is capable of singlehandedly winning this series. But Marc-Andre Fleury has been every bit as good, perhaps better. He will be highly motivated to beat the team he grew up rooting for as a kid.
Fleury hinted his legs were feeling it after the Knights eliminated the Avalanche Thursday. Game 1 isn’t until Monday. He’ll have enough time to rest, recover and prepare. I just don’t see Robin Lehner in the Vegas net unless Fleury is hurt.
Speaking of injuries, are you paying attention to the roster? The Knights are nearly at full strength. Peyton Krebs, who suffered a broken jaw late in the regular season, began skating last week and he might be available during this series if needed. Tomas Nosek’s availability is a bit more sketchy but GM Kelly McCrimmon said Friday Nosek is making good progress and may be ready to come back soon.
Since Max Pacioretty returned to the lineup for Game 7 in the first round against Minnesota, he has registered at least one point in every game. So his return has been huge. Having Brayden McNabb back after he had tested positive for COVID-19 has given DeBoer some much-needed depth on the blue line. He can rotate Nick Holden and Nic Hague in the lineup, give Alec Martinez days off between games and have him ready to block shots and contribute offensively when the real shooting starts on game night. DeBoer has managed Martinez beautifully in that regard.
The Knights have 249 blocked shots in the postseason and it will be a challenge for the Canadiens to get constant good looks in the high-danger areas. It’s a huge edge to the Knights.
Vegas is also getting balanced scoring. All four lines are contributing offensively and should that continue, this could be a short series. Montreal does not match up with the Knights up front.
I like the fact the Knights are getting to the net, getting tip-ins, rebounds and making the opposing defense account for the forwards. William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith have been really good in the postseason and it feels like they turned the clock back to 2018 the way they’re impacting the game.
I mentioned Pacioretty earlier. The Canadiens better watch their former captain closely or he’s going to have a very happy return to the Bell Centre later this week. Pacioretty seems to be getting better with each game and that seven-game point streak he’s currently enjoying is looking big right now.
If you think this is going to be a walkover en route to the Final, guess again. The Habs have won seven straight. They’re the ones with no pressure, even from their rabid fan base. Incidentally, did you see the way thousands celebrated in the streets after the Canadiens eliminated Winnipeg? Montreal has been waiting since 1993 for a big party and this team will no doubt try and provide the entertainment that leads to a province-wide celebration.
Yes, these teams haven’t faced each other since January 2020. DeBoer had just replaced Gerard Gallant and it was his second time behind the Vegas bench. The fact there’s unfamiliarity cuts both ways. Montreal may be in the dark as much as the Knights are.
But that will quickly dissipate. It won’t take long to adjust and find the weaknesses and exploit them. And all the cool storylines about Pacioretty facing his former team, Nick Suzuki taking on the team that drafted him, Jon Merrill returning to Vegas (assuming he is cleared to play) and the Knights’ Francophiles (Fleury, Marchessault, and Will Carrier) returning to their native province will all make for great sound bytes on TV on both sides of the border.
But eventually, it’ll be about what happens on the ice. Essentially, the Canadiens are playing with house money. No one expected them to be in this situation. When they were down 3-1 to Toronto in the first round, that’s when people were bailing from the lifeboats, a reference DeBoer tried to lay on the Knights’ fan base and media after Game 1 in Denver and again after Game 2. They’ll be loose and confident. They know they’re playing one of the NHL’s best teams. But they also know they’re a good team and I expect a great effort from them.
That said, the Knights are hitting their stride. They got past two tough opponents to get to this point without a couple of their key contributors not hitting on all cylinders. Pietrangelo was the Knights’ best player against Colorado and I would look for him to build on his performance here in the semis. Shea Theodore hasn’t been the player we saw in the Edmonton bubble last year. He’s goal-less in 13 games this postseason, but he’s showing signs of life offensively (he has six assists) and if he gets it going, look out.
DeBoer continues to push the right buttons. He brought Ryan Reaves back in for Game 6. He kept Holden in the lineup. His players are buying into playing team defense and showing resiliency when they get down a goal or two.
It’s a veteran team and that will help as they deal with being the first U.S. team to travel to Canada this season and with it will come some familiar restrictions. No going out on the town for dinner. No meeting up with family and friends. It’s airport-to-hotel-to-rink-to-hotel-to airport.
But the Knights will catch a break. Instead of 20,000 fans in the Bell Centre, it’ll be more like 2,500. And as rabid as Canadiens fans can be, it won’t be what the Habs will experience Monday in the Fortress with more than 18,0000 rooting against them.
I’m sure the message for the Knights when they head to Canada will be “This is a business trip, boys. Let’s not have to come back here a second time (for Game 6).” The Knights’ maturity and experience of having endured the Edmonton bubble for a couple of months last summer should help them deal with whatever restrictions the NHL has put in place.
So with that said, I believe the Knights are heading back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in their brief four-year existence. This is their third trip to the semis, which in itself is a remarkable accomplishment. But this was the plan all along. This is why they won the Pietrangelo Sweepstakes. This is why they gave Lehner a five-year, $25 million deal and found themselves up against the salary cap all season. This is why they brought DeBoer in as the coach.
They are here and they may very well be the last man standing. Or at least they’ll have that chance after they defeat the Canadiens in five games and doing it in the favorites, not the underdog’s role.
**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.**