Healthy, united Golden Knights off to fast start

Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill (33) misses a save on a goal shot by St. Louis Blues...
Vegas Golden Knights goaltender Adin Hill (33) misses a save on a goal shot by St. Louis Blues left wing Brandon Saad (not shown) while Blues left wing Josh Leivo (17) looks on during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ellen Schmidt)(Ellen Schmidt | AP)
Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 7:10 AM PST
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Captain Mark Stone stood in front of his locker Saturday night and acknowledged the Vegas Golden Knights probably didn’t deserve to win that evening.

A reporter posed a silver-lining question about the Knights’ third-period surge as something to build upon. Stone shrugged.

“It would’ve been nice to win the game,” he said.

That’s the expectation these days in Vegas, that the final result is all that matters. The St. Louis Blues did something only two other teams had accomplished this season — beat the Knights.

Just a season after missing the playoffs for the first time in their short history, the Knights are among the NHL’s hottest clubs. St. Louis’ 3-2 victory snapped Vegas’ nine-game winning streak, a stretch the Knights hope sent a message they have little interest in missing the postseason again.

The Knights (13-3) have 26 points, best in the Western Conference and second overall to the Boston Bruins (28 points). Vegas first-year coach Bruce Cassidy spent the previous six seasons in Boston, taking the Bruins to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

Now he’s trying to do the same for the Knights, and it’s a long time between now and April when the playoffs begin. But, for now at least, the Knights have a number of factors working in their favor.

One is health.

Vegas lost more than 500 man-games to injury last season, and the Knights struggled to find chemistry when the next man up wasn’t as good as the player being replaced.

Injuries haven’t forced Cassidy to juggle his lineup thus far, though it doesn’t take much in the NHL for that trend to quickly change.

Cassidy already has shown the ability to change plans on his own. He broke up the “Misfit Line” of wings Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault and center William Karlsson, players remaining from Vegas’ first season in 2017-18. That club dubbed itself the “Golden Misfits” because they were thrown together on an expansion team.

In this season’s sixth game against the Colorado Avalanche, Cassidy put that group back on the ice in the third period in search of offense, and he’s stayed with them since. Vegas lost that game 3-2, but then reeled off that nine-game winning streak.

Cassidy made another notable change in the offseason by switching to a zone defense. Opponents have largely been forced to shoot from the sides, easing the burden on goalies Logan Thompson and Adin Hill because they generally don’t have to make many high-risk saves.

“You could see the hockey IQ in training camp,” Cassidy said of his players picking up the system. “We built it from 101, which is pedestrian and usually for younger (players), but that’s the way we thought we would teach it best. You stick with it, and it’s worked out.

“We’re starting to see some cracks in the last road trip. We’re giving up too many chances, too many goals, but there are different reasons for that. That’s not always the system.”

Even with those cracks, the Knights went 5-0 on their eastern swing. They weren’t so fortunate in their return home against the Blues. St. Louis had little trouble getting off quality shots, but Stone didn’t sound alarmed about long-term issues.

“You can’t be perfect for 82 (games),” Stone said. “We’re in a little bit of a lull, but we’re finding ways to win games, so maybe it kind of bit us a bit.”

The goaltender situation was expected to be a concern after the Knights shut down Robin Lehner in the offseason because of hip surgery, and backup Laurent Brossoit missed the beginning of this season for the same reason. Brossoit now plays for the Knights’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Henderson Silver Knights, after clearing waivers last week.

Thompson has made a startling climb to the NHL because he took the unusual route of coming from Canadian college hockey rather than the junior circuit. He took over in net at the end of last season and showed promise in going 10-5-3 with a .914 save percentage, allowing 2.68 goals a game.

But that was a small sample size. What he would do over a full season was a big unknown, but Thompson is now 8-2 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.31 goals-against average.

The Knights haven’t suffered a dropoff when they’ve gone to Hill, who is 5-1 with a .920 save percentage and 2.32 goals-against average. His performance has given the Knights the ability to make sure Thompson isn’t overworked.

As much as anything, Cassidy said the key to the Knights’ early success has been the team’s cohesiveness.

“I don’t know that there’s any team that’s had any level of success if the guys don’t play for one another,” Cassidy said. “There might be a story from 20 years ago where guys all hated each other and they won, but I think that was the New York Yankees or something. I don’t think that was hockey.”