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October 16, 2018

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Golden Knights commit to ‘keep working’ as rough road trip winds down

Breakaways are backbreakers for Vegas against Pittsburgh

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Keith Srakocic / AP

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Phil Kessel, gets a shot past Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Malcolm Subban during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, in Pittsburgh. It was Kessel’s second goal of the period and third of the game.

Everyone was prepared for the worst.

Throughout the Vegas Golden Knights’ trying start to the NHL season, coach Gerard Gallant has been understandably upset in the immediate aftermath of losses and it’s regularly boiled over into short-tempered remarks in post-game media conferences.

After the Golden Knights fell to the Penguins 4-2 Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena for their third straight loss and fourth in five games, Gallant figured to be in another foul mood.

He wasn’t.

Gallant instead exuded positivity and espoused perseverance.

“We’ve got a good hockey team,” Gallant said. “We’re playing OK. We’re not playing well enough to win right now, but we’ll get over it. It’s still early in the season. We’ve got to put our head down and keep working hard.”

For the second straight night, the Golden Knights played well for large swaths of a game against one of the NHL’s power franchises. For the second straight night, the Golden Knights were undone by a few costly mistakes.

Vegas has one game left before returning home, against Philadelphia at 10 a.m. Saturday, where it will try to cut down on miscues, salvage a 2-3 record on the road trip and avenge a season-opening loss to the Flyers.

Gallant sees the solution to Thursday’s biggest issue as simple — the Golden Knights can’t lose track of opposing skaters and allow them to get behind the defense.

It happened twice against Phil Kessel, who turned a game tied at one goal apiece in the second period into a 3-1 Penguins advantage by getting out on breakaways and beating Golden Knights goalie Malcolm Subban.

“There were some nice plays to get it to him,” Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb said. “At the end of the day, it’s on myself. I’ve got to be back there and be aware of it.”

Vegas has labored defensively all year, but it’s mostly been the second and third pairings. Against the Penguins, the Golden Knights’ top defenders were the biggest problem.

McNabb and Colin Miller were on the ice for both of Kessel’s breakaways, which, combined with a first-period goal directly out of a faceoff, gave the veteran a natural hat trick. The Golden Knights’ defensive failings put Subban in tough positions for all of Kessel’s goals, but he was disappointed he couldn’t come up with stops.

“You’ve got to make a save to try to keep your team in the game,” Subban said. “I didn’t do that tonight. They had three in a row there pretty much.”

The third second-period goal came seconds after the arena’s crew cleared the ice of hats thrown on the ice in celebration of Kessel when Jake Guentzel shot home a pass from Sidney Crosby.

Vegas attacked for the rest of the game, but Pittsburgh’s Casey DeSmith won the battle between backup goalies. Subban managed 18 saves on 22 shots, which paled in comparison to DeSmith’s 35 saves on 37 shots.

“We’ve been generating a lot of shots on net,” Subban said. “We’re going to start getting some bounces. I feel like the bounces haven’t been going our way.”

Jonathan Marchessault has been the Golden Knights’ only consistent source of offense. He has double the number of points of anyone else on the roster with six, and set up both of Vegas’ goals against Pittsburgh by sliding in perfect passes.

Marchessault initially found Tomas Nosek to the side of the net about six minutes into the game to put the Golden Knights up 1-0, and then similarly fed Reilly Smith with six minutes to play to give Vegas a fighting chance at 4-2.

Both were even-strength goals, though. The Golden Knights have yet to score a power play goal on the year.

They’re one of only six teams in the league yet to convert, falling to 0-for-13 after two missed chances against the Penguins. The final one was a golden opportunity to cut their deficit to one goal with five minutes remaining.

Proven scorers William Karlsson and Max Pacioretty blasted DeSmith with shots, but he held up. Gallant isn’t as concerned with the power play shortcomings as he is the defensive struggles.

“I thought the second (power play) was real good,” he said. “They had a real good chance to make it 4-3 and the goalie made real good saves. It’s coming … Hopefully sooner than later, we get one.”

Gallant won the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach a year ago in large part because of the way he instilled identity onto an expansion roster of disparate parts en route to a dream season. He preached having fun above all else, and the Golden Knights ran with the idea.

Surely Gallant is hoping the Golden Knights continue to follow his attitude again through this season’s rougher times. And his attitude after losing to the Penguins was optimistic and forward-thinking.

“We’ve just got to keep working, stay with it,” he said. “We had a lot of good chances again tonight and the puck didn’t go in the net until late in the game so we’ve got to stay with it, work hard and sooner or later, it will turn for us.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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