The Golden Knights have many reasons to be happy this holiday season.
The rest of the Pacific Division and Western Conference look up to them in the standings. First-year coach Bruce Cassidy seems to have breathed new life into their defense and special teams. Their young goaltending tandem continues to hold its own.
General manager Kelly McCrimmon, while pleased with the team’s start, also knows there’s still half a season to go. The Knights were first in the Pacific when T-Mobile Arena hosted the 2022 NHL All-Star Game on Feb. 5. They missed the playoffs.
The Knights have been 36 games strong to start the season. The main thing is to maintain that the next 46.
“We have to play really well in the second half to make the playoffs,” McCrimmon said Friday. “We have to play really well in the second half if we want to be a team that has a chance to win our division. I think last year really showed us that things can change in this league.”
The success of the Knights is due to various factors.
Their power play is eighth in the NHL. Their blue line, led by defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, is strong. The forwards are producing as a whole. Fourth-line left wing William Carrier already has a career-high 10 goals.
One surprising element has been the goalkeeper. It became a question mark when the Knights announced in August that goaltender Robin Lehner would miss the season with a hamstring injury that required surgery. But trade acquisition Adin Hill and rookie Logan Thompson have helped the Knights post the eighth-best team in the NHL in save percentage.
“It was a no-brainer in terms of it being a concern,” McCrimmon said. “The exact opposite happened. It was a real strength for our team.”
Two things the Knights are still trying to sort out are their home run record and their third line.
They are 10-9 at T-Mobile Arena compared to 14-2-1 all-around. They lead the NHL in wins and goals per game (4.12) on the road. They are 29th in goals per game at home (2.63). Players have had a hard time explaining the disparity. Even McCrimmon admitted that “it’s hard to pinpoint why.”
Another thing the Knights would like to do is develop a reliable third line. Cassidy’s other three groups have performed well when healthy. The third line was more of a challenge. The team has cycled through players due to injuries and inconsistent play.
Center Brett Howden, who has spent time on that line, has missed 15 straight games with a lower-body injury. Rookie left wing Paul Cotter has missed four straight with an upper-body injury.
“That’s where our team’s uncertainty or inconsistency has been around that third line,” McCrimmon said. “It seems to be where our health is affecting us a little bit.”
One player affected by the permanent third line changes is right wing Phil Kessel. The two-time Stanley Cup champion signed a $1.5 million contract with the Knights in August and quickly became a beloved figure in the locker room. That was evident in the reaction of his teammates when he scored his 400th goal and broke the NHL record in back-to-back games on Oct. 25 in San Jose.
Kessel also struggled to produce consistently when moved around the lineup or forced his teammates to switch. He has six goals and seven assists in 36 games.
“I think we’re going to see more hockey from Phil,” McCrimmon said.
The only other key issue for the Knights is health.
Along with Howden and Cotter, they were without forwards Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault, as well as defenders Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud against the Blues. Absences have recently made the team’s work even more difficult. the group is 11-9-1 in its last 21 games after a 13-2 start, but it still leads the division by five points.
The Knights’ season is far from over. However, almost halfway through, they are in a good place.
“You don’t go on Christmas break in the playoffs, but I like the fact that we got off to a good start,” McCrimmon said.
Here are other notes from McCrimmon’s phone interview with the Review-Journal:
— McCrimmon said he didn’t want to put a timeline on when Eichel, who has missed nine of the last 10 games with a lower-body injury, will be ready to return.
He said the team has received a number of opinions on Eichel’s injury and has a treatment plan in place. It’s unclear exactly how long it will take for him to recover.
“We want this to be something that we put behind us and not deal with again,” McCrimmon said.
— McCrimmon said Lehner had surgery on both hips. The goalkeeper has started the recovery process, which is expected to be extensive.
“His rehab is underway and going well,” McCrimmon said. “Everything is going as expected with Robin.”