We’ve all had the flu. And what happens? We’re in bed. We’re lethargic. We essentially feel like crap.
And here’s what else that happens. There’s no magic cure. You’re not going to instantaneously get better. The doctor says you have to let it run its course.
Which brings us to the Golden Knights.
Think of your favorite team as a flu-ridden patient that is trying to get better. Right now, the Knights have the bug, and I’m not talking the infamous “Vegas Flu.” They lack consistency. They are lacking focus in certain areas. Some of the team’s top players are in a funk while others are simply struggling (we see ya, Jon Merrill!).
Coach Gerard Gallant is doing everything but provide chicken soup for the hockey soul. But he is limited in the number of remedies he can use. He benched the struggling Merrill in St. Louis Thursday for Brad Hunt. He returned Marc-Andre Fleury to the crease against the Blues. He continues to juggle his third line in the hopes of finding a spark.
But the team dropped both games on the brief road trip to Nashville and St. Louis earlier in there week. However, they bounced back with a solid effort Saturday to beat Carolina 3-0 at home with Hunt scoring the game-winner in the first period.
How big was the win? For starters, it snapped the modest two-game losing streak. It also pulled the Knights to within a game of .500 at 6-7-1. The 13 points ties Vegas with Anaheim for sixth place in the Pacific Division and they’re just five points out of first place, a number that’s hardly insurmountable on Nov. 4.
Finally, it gives the team some positive momentum going into the upcoming four-game road trip which begins Tuesday in Toronto. Pick up a few points on the East Coast swing and suddenly the sky isn’t falling.
“I thought we played three or four really good games and this one was in the mix for sure,” Gallant said of the consistent effort his team gave over 60 minutes Saturday. “I hope it carries over and continues on the (road) trip.”
We all know this team is missing some key pieces. Not having Nate Schmidt on the blue line has impacted the Knights far more than anyone could have imagined and his return is still a couple of weeks away. Paul Stastny is out for another month or so. Max Pacioretty will return soon, but his absence has been noticeable.
Combined, that’s three players who would be making a major impact on any given night.
However, you knew what the reality was, especially with Schmidt. That 20-game suspension, which Gallant said he treated like an injury, has really hurt this team. Unlike a year ago when Fleury missed 29 games with a concussion, the Knights managed to hold together their goaltending situation. The defense has not been able to do that this year with Nate out of the lineup.
It has been tough for Merrill. Nick Holden still doesn’t look like he’s completely comfortable out there, though he showed signs of being more at home Saturday against the ‘Canes. 36-year-old Deryk Engelland may be starting to show his age, and Colin Miller and Shea Theodore, the team’s top two D, are still making mistakes in their own zone.
“I think everyone’s been trying to pick up the slack,” said Hunt, who scored his first of the year Saturday. “We realize we’re without those guys and everyone’s trying to pitch in. But nobody in the room has been panicking. We know we have a good team.”
Ken has called for bringing up Erik Brannstrom from the Chicago Wolves. Some want Jake Bischoff to get ice time. Ken’s theory is, “How could you do any worse?”
Let’s say George McPhee listens and he calls Brannstrom up. And Gallant plays him with, say, Holden as the third D pairing. And what if Brannstrom gets lit up? What does that do for his confidence long-term?
You’re gambling with the notion that he will be able to step in, perform at a high level against the world’s best players as a young 19-year-old and help get the Knights out of their current funk.
Remember, Brannstrom played against men last year in Sweden’s SHL and he struggled. Forget the meager stats (two goals, 13 assists, minus-3 in 44 games). Brannstrom found that men get on top of you quicker than kids his own age. They’re faster, stronger and smarter.
Yes, he has been a point-a-game player in nine games with the Wolves. But he’s adjusting nicely in the Chi-town suburbs and head coach Rocky Thompson is the perfect person to nurture Brannstrom and help him grow.
GMGM sees that and so do I. When Brannstrom gets the call to Vegas, it should be for forever, not for a week.
Remember, this isn’t about one player. To make Merrill the scapegoat for what ails the Knights is not only unfair, it’s flat-out wrong. Everyone in that room has to be accountable. Whoever is in the lineup on a given night is obligated to perform, both individually and integrating themselves into the team’s system.
And if you’re watching closely, you know it’s not about effort. Everyone’s working hard. Gallant did not forget how to coach. The goaltending has been strong so far and I include an improved Malcolm Subban when I say this.
Time will cure this team’s ills. I for one, am not ready to throw in the towel on this season. Yes, I have concerns like all of you. The defense collectively must play better, from making smart reads and better breakout passes to transition the attack along with picking up opposing forwards in their own end, giving whoever is in net a clear path to see the puck, to clearing rebounds from in front.
The top three lines have to start generating more offense on a consistent basis. Gallant has kept the top line of William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, and Reilly Smith together despite the early-season struggles, Marchessault notwithstanding. Alex Tuch’s return has given the second line a boost and Erik Haula appears to be perking up. The so-called fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Ryan Reaves and William Carrier are playing more like a second line (I agree with Ken on this). Reaves is playing with an offensive freedom he never had at his previous stops and it is resulting in some much-needed offense as his four goals are second on the team to Marchessault’s six.
Even Carrier finally got off the schneid Saturday with a third-period goal to make it 3-0. So you see, there is hope.
“You win as a team and you lose as a team,” Gallant said. “But those guys work hard every night and it was good to see them rewarded.”
The anemic power play is a whole other story. I don’t have the time and space to address that right now. All I’ll say is when they let the puck do the work and move it quickly and shoot, it looks like a real power play. And they had scored PPGs in each of their last four games before going 0-for-4 against Carolina.
The Knights are a team that’s treading water right now. You don’t like it and I’m not saying you should. But it’s only the first week of November. There’s a ton of hockey left to be played. There’s no need to panic just yet.
Let’s see what happens when the team gets the entire lineup it envisioned having when the season opened. If they’re still battling the flu after that, then maybe it’s time to go to the hospital. Or to the phones for GMGM to make trades and call-ups from Chicago.
But for one night, the patient looked and felt a lot better.
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