Preview: Golden Knights kick off critical five-game road trip against Florida Panthers
The Vegas Golden Knights will look to extend their winning streak to four games when they take on the Florida Panthers Tuesday night at FLA Live Arena (4 p.m. PT).
This is the first of five games on Vegas’ current road trip, which comes at a crucial point in the season when teams are vying for points to remain competitive in the postseason race. Vegas currently sits in first place in the Western Conference with 82 points in 63 games, but the standings are tight.
Every point matters.
Florida is 5-5-0 in its last 10 games and one of several teams sitting a few points behind Pittsburgh for the second wildcard seed in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers are desperate for points as the three teams ahead of them have games in hand.
Florida is coming off a four-point 4-1 win against the Penguins but has not won back-to-back games since the start of February. The Panthers are in the third game of a seven-game homestand.
The Golden Knights most recently pulled off a 4-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens and have won each of their last three contests, all of which have been one-goal games (including a 4-3 shootout win against the Devils); Vegas scored first in all three.
The Golden Knights are 9-1-2 since the All-Star break and 3-0-0 in March; Vegas is 6-2-1 in the all-time matchup against Florida.
The last time these teams played was Jan. 12, a 4-2 win for the Golden Knights. That game proved to be a significant turning point in the Golden Knights’ season, as it was the night Mark Stone sustained an injury that ultimately led to back surgery; he has not returned, and his availability for this season remains unclear.
That also was the last game before Vegas’ power play seemingly disappeared.
Since that Jan. 12 meeting, the Vegas man-advantage has gone 2-for-39 for a 5.13 percent success rate. That includes a 1-for-16 stretch throughout the rest of January, a 1-for-20 run in February and an 0-for-3 start in March. Not surprisingly, that is the worst conversion rate in the NHL in that time, and it’s not particularly close.
The two power-play goals Vegas has scored in its last 20 games were ironically similar. The first was a Phil Kessel snipe from the left circle, as he beat Arizona netminder Karel Vejmelka far-side.
The other was Jack Eichel’s strike against Calgary, as he beat Jacob Markstrom cleanly with a top-shelf laser from the left circle.
Both shooters had time, skated towards the net and picked their spot.
Every other shot on every other opportunity has failed to find twine.
Even so, the Golden Knights didn’t specifically address the power play at the trade deadline, though it continues to be a problem that needs to be addressed.
If those two goals are any indication, perhaps Vegas would benefit by simplifying things, setting screens and trying to pick corners. It’s easier said than done, but nothing else seems to be working.
Part of the issue is that Vegas hasn’t been drawing many penalties; the Golden Knights have only had one power play in each of their last three games. Since the All-Star break, the Golden Knights are tied with the fewest power-play opportunities in the league (23 total, 1.92 per game).
That could be less of a concern tonight as the Golden Knights will take on a Panthers team that has been shorthanded 38 times since the All-Star break, which ranks 11th among all teams. In that time, the Panthers have given up 0.92 power-play goals per game, which is the second-highest mark in the NHL. By contrast, Vegas has yielded an average of 0.42, which ranks 25th.
As such, the Golden Knights will not be facing a shut-down penalty kill in today’s matchup. In fact, Florida ranks 27th with a 74.1 percent kill rate on the year.
Vegas is not alone in hitting a proverbial wall on the power play. Since the All-Star break, the two teams with the worst power plays are Vegas (4.4 percent) and Florida (9.4 percent). On the season, those units rank 19th (20.5 percent) and 16th (21.4 percent), respectively.
Florida’s goal differential throughout the 2022-23 season is plus-one (217-216), as the Panthers have averaged 3.39 goals per game while yielding an average of 3.38.
But over the last month, the Panthers’ defense has been significantly stingier. In fact, Florida has given up an average of 2.38 goals per game since the All-Star break, which is tied for eighth-best overall. The Panthers’ goal differential in that time is plus-six (40-34).
The Golden Knights have averaged 3.16 goals per game and 2.76 goals against per game this year; those numbers have improved to 3.50 goals per game and 2.25 goals against per game with a plus-15 goal differential since the All-Star break.
Matthew Tkachuk leads the Panthers in scoring with 81 points in 61 games, with Carter Verhaeghe in second with 55 in 63 and Aleksander Barkov rounding out the top-3 with 52 in 50. Defenseman Brandon Montour is right there in the mix with 51 points in 62 games, and he is second on the team (behind Tkachuk) with 40 assists.
Verhaeghe has a team-high 32 goals, and the Panthers have three players with 20-plus goals: Verhaeghe (32), Tkachuk (28) and Sam Reinhart (21).
Vegas has two 20-goal scorers in Eichel (23) and Reilly Smith (21), with Jonathan Marchessault sitting one goal shy of 20. The Golden Knights are without their other top-5 goal-scorers in Stone and William Carrier, who suffered an injury against New Jersey and is out indefinitely.
Anthony Duclair recently made his season debut for Florida after missing most of the year following surgery for an Achilles tendon injury. Duclair has two points in four games since returning to the lineup; he is skating on the top line with Barkov and gives Florida’s top six more offensive firepower.
In the crease
Florida netminder Sergei Bobrovsky is 19-17-2 with a 2.98 goals-against average, .906 save percentage and one shutout in 40 starts this season. Alex Lyon is 3-2-1 with a 3.89 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in five starts.
Since the All-Star break, Bobrovsky has gotten 11 of 12 starts and is 7-4-0 with a 2.30 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
In that span, Adin Hill is 6-1-0 with a 2.03 goals-against average and .927 save percentage. Hill is 16-6-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .914 save percentage on the year.
Jonathan Quick made his Golden Knights debut Sunday against Montreal, stopping 25 of 28 shots in the win. In his final four appearances with Los Angeles, Quick went 3-1-0 with a 4.27 goals-against average and .821 save percentage.
Ivan Barbashev — Jack Eichel — Jonathan Marchessault
Reilly Smith — William Karlsson — Michael Amadio
Paul Cotter — Chandler Stephenson — Phil Kessel
Brett Howden — Teddy Blueger — Keegan Kolesar
Alec Martinez — Alex Pietrangelo
Brayden McNabb — Shea Theodore
Nicolas Hague — Zach Whitecloud
Eetu Luostarinen — Aleksander Barkov — Anthony Duclair
Carter Verhaeghe — Sam Bennett — Matthew Tkachuk
Ryan Lomberg — Anton Lundell — Sam Reinhart
Nick Cousins — Erik Staal — Colin White
Gustav Forsling — Aaron Ekblad
Marc Staal — Brandon Montour
Josh Mahura — Radko Gudas