This season Kevin Iole, die-hard VGK fan and legendary combat sports columnist, will be presenting columns a few times a month on Sundays.
There are six games left in the regular season for the Golden Knights and they still have a chance to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Considering the significant amount of injuries they’ve had this season, that’s pretty remarkable.
Of those six, we can probably count on home wins over New Jersey and San Jose and a road game in Chicago. If they lose any of the games to the Devils, Sharks, or Blackhawks, they don’t deserve to make the playoffs in the first place.
So while the Knights need help, their fate will likely come down to Wednesday’s home game against Washington and road games against Dallas and St. Louis. They will likely need to win two of those three to get in.
Saturday’s 4-0 loss at Edmonton just highlighted the problem this team has had since its two months in the bubble in 2020: they can’t score when it matters most.
The problem is that they don’t have one of those players who dominates in front of the net, ideally a big guy, who can flip the puck and grab some rebounds.
The goalkeeper of this team remains a huge question mark. Even if they make it to the playoffs, they will rely on two unproven goaltenders in the playoffs. At his absolute best, Lehner is a good enough goalkeeper to win the Cup, but he hasn’t been at his best after a strong first month and his health is questionable.
When – if – he returns this season, he will have no room for error.
Thompson is a rookie and while rookies have come late in the season and led their teams to a Cup (think Ken Dryden a long time ago and Jordan Binnington recently), the odds that Thompson can replicate those runs are overwhelmingly against him. .
And so, the Knights will have to score, which has been a significant issue for them in the past playoffs.
They are calling for what is traditionally considered in the NHL to be a power forward. Guys like John LeClair and Brendan Shanahan years ago were cleaning up in net. They would make life difficult for defenders and goalkeepers alike and they had an uncanny ability to flip a shot while screening the goalie or grab a rebound quickly and jam it into the net.
The Edmonton game heatmap shows how much the Knights lack that quality. Everything came from the perimeter. Now guys who weigh 6-3, 230 pounds and have soft hands don’t hang around the waiver wire, but that doesn’t have to be a freak.
Pittsburgh, which had one of the best power forwards in recent NHL history in Kevin Stevens, now has a relatively small player in Jake Guentzel who does just that.
Guentzel is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound lightweight winger, but he’s excellent in net and scores a ton of goals within six feet of the blue paint. Dino Ciccarelli was the same height as Guentzel but scored over 600 goals and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Islanders captain Anders Lee is 6-3, 235-plus the prototypical power forward who is dangerous and gets most of his goals with his butt touching the goaltender.
Either way, the Golden Knights don’t have that. And those are the types of players you need to win in the playoffs.
The Knights have scored 12 goals in the last eight games in the bubble in 2020, the last three against Vancouver and the five-game loss to Dallas. Vegas edged and outplayed their opponents in most of those games, but couldn’t put the rebounds in the net.
A LeClair type player would have made a huge difference.
Then, in the shocking six-game losing streak to Montreal in the semifinals last year, the Knights scored just 13 goals. It’s even worse than it looks because they got four in Game 1 of the series and then only nine in the remaining five games.
Again, the lack of a weapon downstairs was their downfall.
Their top scorers, Pacioretty and Jonathan Marchessault, are shooters. Jack Eichel is the kind of player who scores low and gets most of his goals between circles, but he’s much easier to defend when everyone is kept in the perimeter.
Coach Peter DeBoer has kept Eichel away from Pacioretty and captain Mark Stone for the most part since Stone returned from injury last week. Stone looks laboriously skating at times and is probably not in perfect health.
But the Knights most need their top three players to play together and on the ice with the playoffs on the line. Their combination would give them a huge size advantage over other clubs.
Eichel and Pacioretty each weigh 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. Stone stands 6ft 3in and weighs 202 lbs. Starting in New Jersey, DeBoer should round them up, especially if Stone’s legs are strong enough to play the minutes they’ll need to play.
We have to assume at this point that Reilly Smith won’t be back in the regular season because if he was healthy enough to play, he would be playing given the magnitude of the games.
Pair Nic Roy with William Karlsson and Marchessault and have a third line made up of Chandler Stevenson, Evgenii Dadonov and Mattias Janmark.
That, to me, would give them their best opportunity in qualifying.
If at any point they are fully healthy they will have a chance to win, although I think the goaltending issues and lack of cohesion make it unlikely they can string together 16 playoff wins.
Their defense is good enough to win the Cup, especially if Nic Hague returns and they have a top seven consisting of Alex Pietrangelo, Shea Theodore, Alec Martinez, Brayden McNab, Zach Whitecloud, Ben Hutton and Hague.
Their forwards are good and an Eichel-Stone-Pacioretty line could be one of the best in the league.
But the Knights are going to have to show they can score in the dirty areas when it matters most, and they haven’t shown that in the biggest games of the past two seasons.
They need help qualifying, but if they get in, that old goalscoring bugaboo is something they need to fix immediately.
** You can find all of Kevin’s great boxing and MMA work on Yahoo Sports here. **