The Golden Knights are flying high right now having beaten the Jets three straight times and taken a commanding lead in the first round series. Vegas is one win away from repeating their performance in the 2018 Western Conference Final and moving on to a date with the Oilers or Kings. When they arrived back in Las Vegas, they got some unexpected excellent news. After suffering a pretty gruesome-looking knee injury in early March, William Carrier participated in practice today and may be ready to play as soon as tomorrow.
Carrier is having the best year of his career, leading the Golden Knights in game-winning goals with seven and posting career highs in goals (16) and points (25). But, with the team playing as well as they have, Bruce Cassidy has to make a difficult decision on what to do with his lineup in Game 5.
The way I see it, Cassidy has six options to choose from. Here’s a look at all six, ranked in order of which I believe would be best for the Golden Knights, with the worst option first.
Following the two-goal game, it would be awfully harsh to take Howden out of the lineup right now. He’s been an excellent fit with Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone since finding his way on their left-wing this series, and his physicality has helped make life difficult on the Jets. There have been moments this season where Howden has gone invisible offensively but this is not one of them. Taking him out for Carrier wouldn’t be a great move.
Offensively, Kolesar is clearly not the most impactful player in the Golden Knights’ lineup, but he adds a dimension to the lineup that otherwise isn’t there without him. His physical forechecking has been tough on the Jets and his multiple early-game big hits have seemed to knock Winnipeg off their game a bit. Kolesar’s defensive game doesn’t get enough credit too. He’s consistent along the walls, willing to block shots, and makes good decisions in helping the Golden Knights exit. Throw in the fact that he scored a goal in this series, and replacing him with a cold Carrier would be a mistake at this point.
Game 3 wasn’t that long ago, and without “Plan E’s” game-winning goal in double-OT, the Golden Knights would be in a much different place. The argument for scratching Amadio does have some weight because of the impact he’s made outside of the GWG. Despite playing up the lineup with Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault, Amadio hasn’t been generating nearly as many chances as he did when he was at his best. The challenge with removing Amadio from the lineup is the ripple effect it would have. It’s unlikely Carrier would be placed on the top-line, so that would mean at least two, and probably three, of the four lines would need changing to swap one player.
Earlier in the series Barbashev was demoted from the 1st line all the way down to the 4th. He’s continued to play his brand of physical hockey but the offensive aspect of his game definitely feels limited where he is in the lineup. That being said, it was Barbashev’s skate that set up Amadio’s OT goal and Barbashev’s stick that tipped home Vegas’ 3rd goal which ultimately stood as the game-winner in Game 4. In practice today he took reps on the second power play unit, indicating he’s not likely to be coming out of the lineup, but for me, it would be the most like-for-like switch to take him out in favor of Carrier.
First off, the iron man streak is not on the line during the playoffs as the postseason games do not count. Beyond that, Kessel has been pulled off the power play unit (in favor of Barbashev) and he’s been unable to do much offensively in this series. Defensively, Kessel is always going to be a bit of a liability so replacing him with Carrier would be an upgrade in that regard. The fit with William Karlsson and Reilly Smith makes sense on paper, but his shot just doesn’t seem to be lethal enough for it to produce consistently. Simply put, Kessel has been the Golden Knights’ worst player in this series, which speaks as much to the other 17 playing well as it does to Phil playing poorly. If Carrier has to go in, replacing Kessel would be the best option.
Leave Carrier Out
I understand how good Carrier has been this season, and I’m certainly not going to advocate for him to stay out of the lineup forever, but with VGK playing so well in each of the last three games and putting the Jets on the brink of elimination, it just doesn’t make sense to me for this to be the game to force Carrier back into the lineup. If there was a player who was clearly struggling or even a line that was hurting the Golden Knights, I’d be more inclined to get one of Vegas’ best 12 forwards back into the lineup, but that hasn’t been then case. The Golden Knights’ season cannot come to a close tomorrow, and in fact, it’s possible they earn themselves a bunch of added days off, so while it’ll be disappointing to Carrier who has worked hard to get his moment, the best option for the team would be to postpone that moment until either Game 6 of this series or Game 1 of the next.