Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 | 11:15 p.m.
First, the positives.
The Golden Knights picked up the victory, a 3-2 shootout win over the Ottawa Senators at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday. They had a franchise-high 54 shots on goal, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was terrific. Reilly Smith scored his team-best sixth goal of the season, and Nick Holden netted one for the first time this year.
But the fact that they were in a shootout at all with the bottom-dwelling Senators is a negative. So was Ottawa’s third-period goal to force overtime. Vegas’ victory in the shootout papered over a negative that has haunted the Golden Knights through eight games this season.
They are giving up way too many shots on goal.
“That’s something that as a team we need to try and limit and we’d like to focus on a little bit more defensively, not giving up really good scoring chances that (Fleury) has had to make some really big saves,” Holden said. “Obviously in a long season if he has to do that four or five times a game it might wear on him a little bit.”
Through eight games, the Golden Knights allowed 34 shots per game, which is fourth-worst in the NHL. They have surrendered at least 35 shots in six of their games so far, including each of the last four. They are an even-Corsi team, meaning at 5-on-5 they have given up the same amount of shot attempts has they have fired at the opposition.
Against teams like Nashville (39 shots on goal), Boston (35), Calgary (35) or San Jose (35), you’re more inclined to give them a pass. But when Vegas gives up 38 shots to the Kings and 39 to the Senators — a season-high for Ottawa — it marks a troubling trend.
“We’ve got to clean up our defensive game and play better,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “We got away with it tonight. We had great goaltending, they had outstanding goaltending also, but we’re giving up too much.”
Luckily for the Golden Knights, they have Fleury in net. Because of an injury to backup Malcolm Subban in the fourth game of the year, Fleury has been forced into action each game so far, starting seven. It’s no surprise then that Fleury has faced the most shots on goal (258) and made the most saves (239) of any goalie in the league to go along with his NHL-leading 463:09 time on ice.
“He’s standing on his head and we’re not really helping him,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said. “It’s a gift (to have him).”
This is where Nate Schmidt would come in handy for Vegas. He was arguably the team’s best defender last year and when he was on the ice, the Golden Knights controlled possession more often than they didn’t.
Without him this year, it’s forced players into other roles. Holden has stepped up his game the most, turning in a team-high 23:38 of ice time Thursday, a season-high and the fifth time this year he has gone over 22 minutes. Last year he went over 22 minutes four times all of last season.
Vegas improved to 5-3-0 with the win, moving it into a second-place tie with Anaheim in the Pacific Division. Right now the Golden Knights are winning despite allowing as many shots as they have. But only three of the bottom 10 teams in shots on goal allowed per game last year made the playoffs.
The biggest Fleury save of the night came during a second-period power play when he lost his stick and his glove and withstood an Ottawa surge. It exemplifies what has made Fleury so good in his career when he turns away a high-danger chance like that, or the 14 he faced Thursday.
The issue is that he has had to make too many of those in the season’s early goings. The Golden Knights have identified that as the problem. The next part is fixing it.
“He’s such an elite goalie and he makes so many saves like that,” Holden said. “I think we need to limit those so he doesn’t have to make those every game.”