Don’t Sleep on Pacioretty and the Vegas Golden Knights

After a rough start to the season, Max Pacioretty of the Vegas Golden Knights has been on a hot streak as of late.

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On the morning of November 18, 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights were preparing to face their Pacific Division rival, the Edmonton Oilers. Things did not look good for Vegas, last season’s Stanley Cup finalist. An ugly 8-12-1 record had them sitting in second last place in the entire league. Only their division companions and first round playoff victims from the previous season, the Los Angeles Kings, were below them in the standings. A key cause for concern: their marquee trade acquisition, Max Pacioretty, had been about as effective as an umbrella in a hurricane. The performance, or lack thereof, of the former Montreal Canadiens captain was even more concerning given the price Vegas paid to acquire him. Vegas had dealt forward Tomas Tatar, blue chip prospect Nick Suzuki, and a second round pick in the 2019 draft in an effort to bolster up their top six.

Through 16 games the joke could be used “what do Max Pacioretty and a square have in common? Both only have four points…” Yes, the five-time thirty goal scorer had a mere four points on the morning of November 18, comprising of two goals and two assists, and was on track to record the lowest point per game totals of his entire career. That night in Edmonton, Pacioretty would score the go-ahead goal to give the Golden Knights a 3-2 lead, and they wouldn’t look back, eventually finishing the game 6-3 victors. After that point, Pacioretty has been on one of the hottest stretches of the scoring forward’s decade-long career. In a current seven game point streak, which began with that game against the Oilers, Pacioretty has recorded 8 goals and 3 assists for 11 total points, quadrupling his goal scoring production from the previous sixteen games.

Pacioretty’s hot-streak has coincided with success for his team. Since that game in Edmonton, Vegas has a record of 6-1-0, including a current five-game winning streak. Vegas now finds themselves right in the playoff race, level on points with third-place San Jose who owns the tiebreaker. If Pacioretty can continue to find chemistry with line mates Cody Eakin and Alex Tuch (the trio have combined for 17 goals and 32 points in the last 10 games), Vegas should be able to seize a playoff spot in an embarrassingly weak Pacific Division.

Causes for optimism include the recent return of defenseman Nate Schmidt to the line-up after a 20 game suspension for violating the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. The 27-year-old’s value to the team is undeniable, he’s able to chip in some offense, and can give the team 20-25 minutes of reliable defensive play each night. Last season his +/- rating was +19, and in seven games this season he is already +4.

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An additional cause for optimism is the fact that star free-agent acquisition Paul Stastny should return to the line-up in January after suffering a knee injury in the third game of the season. The veteran centre will certainly provide a needed boost to the top-nine forward group for the Golden Knights upon his return. For a team desperate for secondary scoring, Stastny will be welcomed by fans more enthusiastically than a piñata at a children’s birthday party.

One cause for concern for the Golden Knights would be their goaltending. Last season, Vegas claimed backup goaltender Malcolm Subban after he was put on waivers by the Boston Bruins. He had never won a game in the NHL up to that point. His first game in goal for the Golden Knights was against … the same Boston Bruins, the team that had essentially given up on him. In a feel good story, particularly if you hate the Bruins as much as yours truly, Subban allowed a single goal on 23 shots to collect his first career win. Despite an injury shortened season, Subban compiled a 13-4-2 record in 19 starts for the Golden Knights.

This season, he has been nowhere near as dominant. He hasn’t even been average. Instead, he’s been downright terrible. In four starts, he has four regulation losses, and sports an ugly 4.03 GAA (Goals Against Average) and .859 Sv% (Save Percentage). It’s a huge step backwards from last season in which he had a 2.68 GAA and a .910 Sv%. Marc-Andre Fleury has been his usual dominant self in net, but the veteran net-minder can’t start every game. If Subban does not find his game soon, Vegas will need to hope that their offense can outscore their problems, and that Fleury can continue to carry this team to the playoffs.

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At the trade deadline last year, General Manager George McPhee signaled his intent to win now, and that continued in the off-season as previously mentioned with the acquisition via trade of Max Pacioretty. For a team that was three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup last season, I would expect to see more moves from Vegas leading up to the trade deadline (February 25, 3:00 pm ET). With centre Erik Haula listed as month-to-month after injuring his right leg in a collision with Leafs’ forward Patrick Marleau on November 6, and Paul Stastny not expected to return until early 2019, I could see McPhee making a deal for a top-nine centre. Additionally, if Malcolm Subban continues to impersonate Swiss Cheese in goal, McPhee may also be in the market for a veteran backup goaltender.

Last season Vegas essentially took the NHL by storm, leading the Pacific Division seemingly from start to finish. This season due to a slow start, they have flown under the collective radar. But don’t sleep on the Vegas Golden Knights. In a fortnight, this is a team that has jumped from 30th in the league to 15th, and are a mere three points behind the division leading Calgary Flames. Many doubted Vegas last year, including yours truly. I am determined not to make the same mistake again.

Thanks for reading. Also, you’re welcome for not including any gambling references or puns in an article focusing in on a Vegas team. It wasn’t easy, but I did it just for you. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section. Also feel free to let me know what you think on Twitter. @CanberrasCanuck

Stats from NHL.com, hockey-reference.com and dropyourgloves.com

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Author: Gordon Witt