LAS VEGAS (AP)Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer knows his team’s play in the defensive zone is critical to sparking offensive production in the final nine games of the regular season.
”It’s easier to survive forwards than it is when you start losing veteran defenseman,” DeBoer said after Monday’s practice, ahead of a critical three-game trip to Canada. ”It’s just a big ask for young guys to step in. You can fill in one guy, but when you’re filling in three or four guys into your six, it really changes the way you play.”
Vegas has seen 16 skaters miss time – some of them extended – due to injuries, but the return of several defensemen has helped even if forwards Mark Stone and Reilly Smith are still out.
In Saturday’s 6-1 win over Arizona, the Knights looked more like themselves with six players scoring and 12 skaters registering at least one point. The offensive surge was led by defenseman Brayden McNabb, who registered a career-high three points, including a goal.
Vegas likes to speed from one end to the other, so it depends on its defensive game to create turnovers in the neutral and defensive zones, break the puck out and create odd-man rushes.
”They’re not defending all the time. They get some of those offensive looks,” DeBoer said. ”I like our group of defensemen like that because every one of those guys can make a play.”
Vegas is two games back of third-place Los Angeles in the Pacific Division with 84 points with a game in-hand. The Golden Knights are two points behind Dallas for the second wild-card berth in the Western Conference, but the Stars have one game in hand.
The Golden Knights are on a 6-1-0 since March 24 and rank fourth in the NHL with 4.14 goals per game in that span, while ranking second in allowing just 2.14 goals per contest.
”When we defend well … we seem to create a lot more,” said Alex Pietrangelo, who ranks fourth on the team with 40 points (13 goals, 27 assists).
Along with Pietrangelo, fellow defensemen McNabb and Shea Theodore are tied for fifth on the team with five points the past seven games.
DeBoer noted it’s tough to depend on younger defensemen, but one new face to the lineup: Ben Hutton.
He was sitting on his couch hoping a team would call when the Golden Knights reached out in October. And, his fundamentally sound game has filled a void playing alongside Pietrangelo.
”He knew what he had to do coming in, he knew he was gonna have to learn the system quick and he did that,” Pietrangelo said. ”It was easy, for me at least, to transition playing with him because you know what you’re gonna get from him every night, a good simple game.”
Heading into the week, the Golden Knights’ defensemen have tallied 171 points. They’re on pace to register a franchise-high 192 points, which would surpass the mark of 180 set during their inaugural season (2017-18).
Shea Theodore has 42 points and could break his career-high of 46. Zach Whitecloud has already set a new career-high with 16 points.
Though it’s unlikely Pietrangelo will set a new career-high (54), but he certainly could set a new career mark in goals. In his final season with St. Louis, he scored 16 goals. He has 13 heading into this week’s games.
NOTES: DeBoer said Stone will travel with the team to Canada and could return to the lineup during the trip. Stone has missed the team’s last 26 games, and 45 overall this season.
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