After defeating the Detroit Red Wings last night, Vegas clawed back to one game under .500 against Eastern Conference teams this season. The Golden Knights received three goals from defensemen, one from veteran Reilly Smith and rookie Paul Cotter added another. Whatever coach Pete DeBoer drew up before the game, it couldn’t have worked out any better than their well-rounded 5-2 result. It hasn’t gone as smoothly against other teams from the East.
On Tuesday, the Golden Knights faced a much more complete team and lost by two at home. Carolina is one of the NHL’s best overall clubs, and happen to be much healthier than Vegas. The Hurricanes high end forwards and mobile defense troubled the Golden Knights. Star forward Sebastian Aho shot seven times, registering 2 points and the Canes took 14 shots from defensemen. Carolina boasts 3.5 goals per game and like Vegas receive a good percentage of their offense from their blue line. Injuries aside, both rosters are among the elite and would make for an entertaining final.
The NY Islanders were another Eastern Conference team Vegas struggled with, losing 2-0 at T-Mobile Arena in late October. New York played defensively, waited out mistakes, forcing Vegas into bad shots and one and out opportunities. The Golden Knights fell into the Islanders trap and outshot New York two to one, but were out scored 2-0. Games against New York are consistently uneventful and Vegas will need patience and quality shooting to win a tight, low scoring contest. Unfortunately, the Golden Knights fell in similar fashions in back-to-back semifinals, so there’s plenty to learn from an Islanders loss.
At times in an NHL season it’s pick your poison night; a slow frustrating game or an exhaustive track meet. Earlier this month, Vegas traveled and lost by four in Toronto. The loss wasn’t the problem, the concern was the Golden Knights getting blanked 4-0. We’re all aware of Toronto’s weak defense and goaltending of the past, so at full strength Vegas should capitalize.
It’s unfair to expect matching scoring chances with Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander when Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, William Karlsson and Jack Eichel are unavailable. We’ve witnessed Vegas magnificently pick apart Colorado, another high-octane team, for four straight playoff games. My sense is the Golden Knights would have no issues playing wide open hockey with the Maple Leafs.
The other two Eastern Canadian teams the Golden Knights have faced this year went as expected. Montreal and Ottawa have a combined record of 8-23-3 and Vegas handled both appropriately.
Overall the Golden Knights are 3-4-0 against the Eastern Conference this season. While it’s a small sample, Carolina, NY and Toronto will likely be present come playoff time. For any Western Conference contender, it’ll be a challenge considering Eastern Conference teams have hoisted the Stanley Cup in five of the last six seasons. If the Golden Knights are fully healthy the potential postseason lineup has enough skill and talent to break up that Eastern championship trend.