When the Golden Knights traded for Ottawa’s Mark Stone at last Monday’s NHL trade deadline, Just about everyone in Las Vegas felt good about the move.
And why shouldn’t they have? He could score. He could check. He could lead in the locker room. Some people were bitter that prospect Erik Brannstrom had to go to the Senators to complete the deal. But even the inept Sens weren’t giving Stone, their leading scorer, away for nothing,
In the eight days he has been a Golden Knight, Stone has breathed new life into a team that was floundering a bit and had played itself out of contention to repeat as Pacific Division champions.
The Knights are undefeated since Stone pulled on his No. 61 sweater, going 4-0. They have a 36-26-5 record and 77 points with 15 games remaining in the regular season. Barring a major collapse, they’re heading to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
And when you think about that, it’s a remarkable achievement. How many expansion teams have this kind of success this early into their existence?
Stone’s mere presence has balanced things out among Gerard Gallant’s four lines. He has Stone on VGK’s second line with Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty and the trio have clicked right away. Stone’s presence has resulted in Alex Tuch, who was the Golden Knights’ leading scorer, being moved to the third line with Cody Eakin and Ryan Carpenter or Brandon Pirri. And that line is generating some offense now.
It has been a somewhat tumultuous season for the Golden Knights in Year Two. You may recall Nate Schmidt, their best defenseman, missed the first 20 games of 2018-19 for violating the league’s banned substance policy. They’ve been without center Erik Haula since Nov. 6 after he suffered a severe knee injury in Toronto. Haula is just now starting to skate and maybe the Knights get him back for the playoffs. He can be a big addition if he’s healthy and can return to playing his up-tempo game.
There’ve been other injuries over the course of the year and that’s something every NHL team goes through. But Vegas has managed to deal with the missing bodies and soldier on. They are skating again, blocking shots, making plays, scoring goals and getting stellar play in net from Marc-Andre Fleury. They’re playing with an edge.
The “Golden Misfits” have regained their identity.
The final push begins Wednesday and it’s a big game. Calgary, this year’s “Misfits,” are in town and the Flames are in first place in the Pacific Division. They’ve been one of the NHL’s biggest surprise stories this year, along with the New York Islanders.
This is a measuring-stick game for the hosts. They are trying to get their home-ice invincibility back, where people betting on them had to lay -200 or more.
The Knights won’t be quite as big a favorite Wednesday. It’ll be more like -130, -140. But these are the games they need to win to build more momentum heading into the playoffs. March is going to go by quick.
There are going to be some tough challenges these next few weeks for Vegas. There’s a game at Calgary on Sunday followed by a trip to Dallas March 15. There are two road games against second-place San Jose and a home game with Central Division leader Winnipeg. And April brings with it a game against the resurgent Arizona Coyotes, who are in the midst of a battle for a playoff spot.
If you bet hockey on a regular basis, you have a feel for who’s got momentum and who has packed it in. Unfortunately, so do the oddsmakers, so getting value isn’t as easy as it was in say, December.
But I know a lot of sharp people who can always find an edge, be it with a first-period total, an in-game play on a team or riding a hot goalie, regardless of the price. You may have to look and shop a bit, but it’s there for the taking.
Betting aside, the joy has returned inside T-Mobile Arena. Stone has been embraced by the passionate VGK fan base. His teammates have responded to the challenge. Fleury has recorded back-to-back shutouts and he has bounced back from what appeared to be some fatigue, both mentally and physically earlier in February.
His defense has played better in front of him and the forwards are doing a better job in getting back.
Most important, the team has its mojo back. They believe they can win every night and they are a confident bunch. The Misfits have returned.
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