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If you’re the Vegas Golden Knights right now, panic is setting in for perhaps the first time in the expansion franchise’s charmed history.
The Golden Knights famously made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of existence as an NHL franchise and have been in the playoffs each of their first four NHL seasons with just one first round exit on the postseason resume. But this season is looking like an uphill climb through injuries and adversity for a Vegas hockey club that sits four points out of a wild card playoff spot with just five games to go in their regular season.
For many around the hockey world, though, they aren’t feeling that badly that it’s finally happening to a team literally borne into NHL success and fielded their share of critics with the way they’ve tossed away good hockey people like Marc-Andre Fleury and Gerard Gallant in recent years.
Their current situation is dire with both Nashville and Dallas holding a game in hand on a Golden Knights team chasing them, and Vegas even in danger of the Vancouver Canucks passing them in the Pacific Division after ripping off six wins in a row.
"We have to find a way to win hockey games," said Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault, who has been the team’s leading scorer with 29 goals and 64 points in 71 games. "For the first time, we're going to need help from other teams. They're going to need to lose. That's just the way it is.
“At the end of the day, nobody is going to make us play in the playoffs. We have to earn it and we’re definitely not earning it.”
The Golden Knights are also three points out of a spot in the Pacific Division behind the Los Angeles Kings, and that may be the more realistic target for any sliver or a chance that Vegas has to get it together.
The latest indignity was a 3-2 loss on Monday night to a New Jersey Devils team that’s been out of the playoff picture since November, a setback that has the Golden Knights feeling like they’ve got to run the table if they want to sniff the postseason.
"We got to win them all. It's pretty simple, we got to win them all," said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer. "Circumstances have put us in a situation here where we have no margin of error. It doesn’t get any more desperate than that. I would think that motivation would be the least of our problems right now.”
The Golden Knights have essentially been treading water since the holiday/COVID break with a 21-19-5 record since then while navigating through injury problems for Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Reilly Smith and Robin Lehner this season. The Golden Knights are returning to a fuller lineup now, but the rust is there, and it seems like Lehner just isn’t quite right at this point as the whole team is less than the sum of their parts.
Lehner gave up a couple of odd goals late in the loss to New Jersey and had his head coach perhaps lamenting the decision to start him after he was outplayed in net by the journeyman known as the Hamburglar, Andrew Hammond.
“This time of year, you’re looking for your [goaltender] to be better than the guy at the other end, and that wasn’t the case tonight,” said Golden Knights head coach Pete DeBoer. “I’m not even sure either goal was a real good chance that they scored on.”
Certainly, a banged up Lehner’s numbers have been down this season with a .907 save percentage that is clearly not what the Golden Knights were looking for after trading away Fleury, but it goes beyond the goalie.
The Golden Knights have some of the worst special teams in the league with a power play at a 17.3 percent success rate and a PK that allows opponents to score at a 22 percent clip. The Golden Knights have one power play goal in their last nine games in a power outage that’s surely going to lead to heavy examination in the offseason.
But even through injuries, the Golden Knights aren’t showing the same character and backbone as other talented hockey teams fighting through injuries, adversity and the normal rigors of an NHL regular season.
They’ve also had to work extraordinary hard for their goals with Pacioretty and Stone gone for most of the season. Marchessault has been excellent wire-to-wire for the Golden Knights, but he’s the only 20-goal scorer on this current group and would probably end the season as the only 20-goal scorer for this season’s injury-plagued group.
Teams above Vegas like Nashville, Dallas and Los Angeles aren’t any more talented than the Golden Knights, but they’ve absolutely played better this season. So perhaps it’s time to start investigating a little more deeply why it looks like Lady Luck is running out on Vegas this season after such a good run to start the franchise’s history.