Are the Golden Knights finally returning to form?: ‘I like how we’re trending’

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LAS VEGAS — It has been a while since the Golden Knights have looked like themselves.

The Stanley Cup was won last season with great defensive structure, aggressive offense in transition and steady goaltending. While Vegas certainly isn’t at that level currently, the recent homestand has shown signs that the team is heading in the right direction.

The Golden Knights held Seattle to the outside for 60 minutes in Thursday night’s 3-1 victory. It was a complete defensive effort, and continued to build upon what the team did in the two previous games against New Jersey and Tampa Bay.

“We’ve had a number of games since the break where we’ve been able to do that,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said. “A few of them have gotten away from us in pockets, and (on Thursday) it didn’t. We’re doing a lot more of the detail work better, and it shows in our goals against, shots against, chances against. This is a good homestand for us so far in terms of that.”

From Jan. 22 – when captain Mark Stone was knocked out of the lineup with a lacerated spleen – through March 7, the Golden Knights were one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL. During that 17-game stretch, they allowed the fifth-most expected goals (2.84) and fifth-most high-danger chances (12.74) in the league, according to Natural Stat Trick. They were plagued by turnovers exiting the zone that led to poor structure and, as a result, they gave up 3.82 goals per game.

In the six games since, there’s been a complete turnaround. Since March 7, Vegas has allowed the fewest expected goals (1.88) and high danger chances (6.41) per game in the NHL.

“I think it’s kind of been building,” center Chandler Stephenson said on Thursday night. “The last three games have been pretty good. To get rewarded for that tonight is a confidence-builder for the team. I think we’re a little more in sync. It seemed guys were maybe trying a little too much, overthinking it, and that just kind of happens when you go on skids and your game is inconsistent. You’re trying to overdo it, over-think, over-everything.”

Thursday’s win over Seattle was a defensive clinic. Vegas surrendered only 14 shots and two high-danger chances in more than 45 minutes at even strength. And while the Kraken aren’t the most electric offense (especially without Vince Dunn), the Golden Knights played just as stingy against the Lightning and Devils in the previous two games. They’ve given up only two high-danger chances at even strength in all three games during this homestand.

“I just feel like our games have been good enough to win, and if we can keep stretching that a little further away from each opponent, then our identity will be back,” Cassidy said.

The Golden Knights are still a long way from hitting the type of peak performance we saw during last year’s playoff run. The offense still feels incredibly hard to come by, and the goaltending has room for improvement, but the fact that they’ve returned to the style of play that made them successful is a massive step in the right direction.

“I like how we’re trending,” Cassidy said. “We just have to keep that up and keep that mindset of how we want to play.”

The deadline acquisition of Noah Hanifin has helped. In the 119 minutes of even-strength ice time he’s played in Vegas since coming over from Calgary, Hanifin leads the Golden Knights in Corsi share (57.14 percent), shot share (60.66 percent) and expected goal share (60.61 percent).

He’s played big minutes on the top pair, and he’s done it in multiple ways. Initially, he was eased in as a complement to Alex Pietrangelo. Recently, with Pietrangelo out with an illness, Hanifin has stepped up and anchored the top pair alongside Nicolas Hague.

Hanifin’s smooth skating allows him to pressure attacking players as they enter the zone. He has a knack for timing his challenges perfectly to break up a rush, but admitted that in order to do that, his forward teammates must be applying the needed pressure from behind the attack.

“I think even defensively, we had really good gaps, and you’re only allowed to have good gaps as a defenseman if you have good back pressure from your forwards, and we did that all night,” he said following the win over New Jersey. “It caused a lot of turnovers and some transition in the neutral zone that led to some chances.”

The Golden Knights have one of the strongest, deepest defensive groups in the NHL. Zach Whitecloud could easily play in the top four on some teams, but has sat out as a healthy scratch lately in Vegas. Perhaps even more importantly, the Golden Knights have defensive-minded forwards who only add to that overall defense. The return of Jack Eichel has certainly added to that.

In the eight games since Eichel came back from injury, his line has dominated with an impressive 56.33 percent expected goal share and 6-3 edge in scoring.

“We’ve played big-time hockey games as a group before, and we understand the circumstances that we’ve put ourselves in now, and every game means something,” Eichel said.

Thursday’s win moved Vegas four points clear of St. Louis for the final wild-card spot with a game in hand, and five points clear of Minnesota. The Golden Knights are also only two points behind Los Angeles for third place in the Pacific Division. They currently have a 91 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to the model by The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn.

The recent wins have gone a long way toward solidifying their place in the postseason. Equally important, their game is getting closer to where it needs to be to have success once they’re there. It hasn’t been perfect, but for the first time in months, it feels like Vegas is on the right track, and there’s a legitimate path to returning to last year’s form.

The goaltending still needs to be better. Logan Thompson has put together back-to-back strong starts against the Devils and Kraken, and the more consistently the defense plays in front of them, the more confidence he and Adin Hill will have. The offense also needs to execute at a higher rate, but perhaps the eventual addition of Tomas Hertl – who began skating on his own this week – will help in that regard.

“Nothing’s easy right now for us, it seems like,” Cassidy said of the scoring. “That can be a good thing, if you persevere and get through it. For whatever reason, our execution on the skill plays, or the rush, or the power play, is just not where it typically is right now, so find ways to get to the net.

“It’s a good thing to be able to generate offense that way because the rush game tends to shut down (in the playoffs).”

The Golden Knights aren’t playoff-ready, but they’ve shown glimpses of it. There were times over the last few months when it felt like Cassidy and the players were searching for answers. That sentiment shifted during this homestand. It now feels as though they have some answers, know what it takes to return to peak form and are working toward it.

(Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

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