Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 | 2 a.m.
For the majority of NHL teams — all of those that fail to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — the offseason is long and full of time to review and scout the past year.
It’s a safe assumption that many such franchises spent a portion of this summer's extra time studying the Vegas Golden Knights. Vegas proved an enigma for the rest of the league in its inaugural season, using a unique style to rack up an unprecedented 109 points in the standings for an expansion team.
The Golden Knights came into this year knowing they’d be shrouded by less mystery.
“We flew under the radar for most of last season, so there’s a little extra attention,” first-line winger Reilly Smith said before Vegas’ current road trip. “It’s something we’re excited to test ourselves against.”
So far, it’s a test they haven’t stood up well against. The Golden Knights sit at 1-2 with a minus-4 goal differential going into their first back-to-back of the season, an extremely tough one at that.
Vegas plays at the Washington Capitals at 5 p.m. tonight before traveling to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at 4 p.m. Thursday. Tonight’s Stanley Cup rematch is a nationally televised game on NBC Sports Network, with the Penguins’ contest back on the usual AT&T Sports Net.
The Golden Knights went a combined 3-1 against the powerhouses last regular season, before falling to the Capitals in five games in the Stanley Cup Final. The Capitals and Penguins will both be decent-sized favorites, and should live up to that status if they’re as well prepared for the Golden Knights as the team’s first three opponents.
Neither Philadelphia nor Buffalo — the two teams to defeat the Golden Knights — were flustered by Vegas’ trademark speed and aggression. The Flyers and Sabres neutralized the Golden Knights by going on the offensive early and attacking with just as much abandon as their opponent.
Jonathan Marchessault said the team’s 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild was its lone complete performance, but even that win took a score in the final two minutes after pulling goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and shootout heroics from Erik Haula. Vegas has trailed at the end of the first period in all three games this season.
“Teams are going to be ready for us,” Marchessault said. “We need to be ready for them.”
Smith believed the team’s greatest asset last season was its depth, which helped maintain pressure and pace no matter who was on the ice. That hasn’t repeated early this season.
There’s been a noticeable drop-off after the Golden Knights’ top two lines, with third-liners Oscar Lindberg, Ryan Carpenter and Tomas Nosek at the bottom of the stat sheet in plus/minus. Defensive depth is also problematic, as teams have regularly caught the third pairing of Nick Holden and Jon Merrill out of position.
After those matchups were regularly exploited, Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant tinkered with the lineups, “trying to get a spark” late in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Sabres. It’s something Gallant may continue to explore against the Capitals and Penguins, as he prefers to make internal changes than over-emphasize an opponent’s approach.
“I’m not worried about what the other team is going to do; I’m worried about our team,” Gallant said last week. “I think as long we play the same way we did last year — play fast, play hard and be ready for every game. Teams are going to respect us, obviously.”
A couple losses far from sinks the Golden Knights’ hopes for their second season. Heck, there’s even a question as to whether they’ve even struggled as much as it looks on the surface.
Their underlying numbers are still strong and could portend future success. The Golden Knights are fifth in the league in Corsi for, a measure of every attempted shot, at 60.2 percent. Even isolated to shots on goal, the Golden Knights are averaging nearly 11 more per game than their opponents.
Some of that edge has come late in games with Vegas playing catch-up, but the time doesn’t matter to at least one prominent Golden Knight.
Fleury saw flashes of last year’s team as they threw everything they could at the Sabres, and described it as transferable going forward.
“Once we got going, I felt like we had the puck and we didn’t give them much,” Fleury said. “I’m confident our group of guys know that if we play the way we did in that second half of the game, we should be in good shape.”