John Locher / AP
Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018 | 2 a.m.
There was only 1:15 left to play last week in a tie game for the Golden Knights against Edmonton at T-Mobile Arena. The Oilers, looking to win late, sent its top unit — including superstar Connor McDavid — onto the ice.
Vegas coach Gerard Gallant answered with a line of third and fourth line forwards Alex Tuch, Cody Eakin and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
Late in close games coaches tend to limit ice time to only the top lines made up of the club’s top players. Gallant, as witnessed by his willingness to use players on the end of his bench in crucial spots, trusts his entire roster. That could help explain why the expansion team has found success with the absence of a superstar.
“Obviously it’s fun,” Bellemare said. “I am striving to be better offensively and I’m working every day at it. Getting a face off in the offensive zone when we need a goal is great. You know the coach has confidence in you.”
Ask any coach in the NHL and they’ll tell you it takes contributions from all 20 players on the active roster to win, but few show it with their distribution of ice time more than Gallant.
“We started that from day one and we always talk about how we need 20 players to play in the game the way we want them to play it,” said Gallant, who divvies up playing time evenly among his top two lines, and plays his third and fourth line forwards more than most.
The Golden Knights are one of only seven teams in the NHL without a forward averaging at least 19 minutes per game. William Karlsson, who leads Vegas forwards with 18:18 per game, averages the fewest minutes of any team-leader in the league.
“If you’re playing the right way he’s going to put you out there,” said William Carrier, who plays on the Golden Knights’ fourth line. “He’s been rolling three or four lines for the last 15 games and we’ve been playing really well, all together.”
For comparison, Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers leads all forwards with 22:30 of ice time per game, which is over four minutes more than Karlsson plays. Edmonton’s McDavid played 25:23 in Saturday night’s overtime tilt, while Jonathan Marchessault led the Golden Knights with only 21:45.
The Golden Knights’ top line of Karlsson, Marchessault and Reilly Smith actually averages fewer minutes per game (14:08) than the second line of James Neal, David Perron and Erik Haula (14:43).
The third line — which has been shuffled but usually consists of Brendan Leipsic, Eakin and Tuch — averages a solid 12:03 per game, and the fourth line of Bellemare, Carrier and Tomas Nosek averages a respectable 9:12.
“Getting confidence from your coach is the best thing, really,” Bellemare said.
On teams with a dominant first line that plays well over 20 minutes per game, the third and fourth line players spend long periods during the game sitting on the bench waiting for an opportunity.
“It’s a little bit tough but we all have different roles on the team,” Bellemare said. “You know what your role is and if you’re a guy that has to play six or eight minutes then you have to be ready when you hit the ice because that’s your chance.”
While Vegas’ bottom-six forwards still play fewer minutes, they get more chances than they would with most teams, especially late in the game.
“It helps,” Bellemare said. “In the beginning of the season we might have been a little bit nervous when we play but now we know at the end of the game he will throw us in there to try to get some momentum.”
Bellemare briefly exited the Edmonton game during the first period when he took a slapshot to the face while attempting to block a shot. The puck clipped him above his right eyebrow leaving a gash dripping with blood that required three stitches.
He returned to play minutes later, and Gallant trusted him enough to send him out for the final face off in regulation, stitches and all.
“Bellemare is one of my premier defensive players and is a good face-off guy,” Gallant said. “I shortened the bench a little bit in the last three minutes but that’s as far as it went.”
To be fair to other teams, the Golden Knights don’t currently have a superstar who commands more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, but Gallant and his staff have found another formula that has worked to this point.
By distributing ice time more evenly across the lineup, Gallant keeps his top players fresh throughout the game. That allows them to forecheck with more intensity than most teams, and is a huge reason why the Golden Knights lead the NHL with 12 takeaways per game.
And even though they lost to Edmonton in overtime, Gallant’s philosophy has led to more wins than expected for a first-year team.