Believe it Vegas, Golden Knights atop the NHL

Jan 23, 2018 3:00 AM

Vegas fans almost fell into a panic when they lost a playoff intensity-filled battle in Nashville for the Knights’ second straight loss.

Imagine: two-in-a-row!

Luckily, everyone was allowed to breathe again following a dominating 4-1 win against No. 1 overall Tampa Bay in a pairing of conference leaders.

The Knights continued their Magic Minute Moments against the Lightning, but in reverse. Instead of scoring in the final minutes of a period, James Neal tallied 56 seconds into the first period, then William Karlsson scored 18 seconds into the third period.

Throw in the overtime loss in Florida, that gave Vegas three-out-of-four points in the Sunshine state, a feat only Chicago and Columbus have been able to achieve this season.

Vegas concluded the road trip with a convincing 5-1 victory at Carolina. The Knights now own the NHL’s best record and most points.

Goalie crisis

Just like grading baseball pitchers, changes need to be made with hockey goalies in order to offer a proper power rating when handicapping.

However, one critical caveat is not to confuse poor defensive play in front for sagging numbers by a goaltender. With that in mind, what’s currently wrong with several Grade A goalies in recent weeks?

Jake Allen, St. Louis: Looking like a sure thing for the Vezina over the first two months of the season at 17-6-2, Allen is now 1-8-0 in his last nine starts (only win vs. lowly Vancouver), getting pulled in two of his last three starts. During the skid, his save percentage in under 90 percent.

Luckily for the Blues, backup goalie Carter Hutton has played stellar. He has allowed just 11 goals in 11 games, leaving many to wonder if Allen should remain benched since the Ken Hitchcock excuse is no longer a viable reason for his rough stretch.

Corey Crawford, Chicago: The Blackhawks face major issues when it was announced Crawford is suffering from vertigo and could miss the balance of the regular season. If this happens, there will be no playoff run for Chicago.

Anton Forsberg and 32-year-old rookie Jeff Glass will fill in, yet neither are the answer, leaving us to wonder: What happened to Scott Darling? (He was traded to Carolina last April.)

Matt Murray, Pittsburgh: The replacement for Marc-Andre Fleury is barely over .500 for the Penguins, leaving the team in a fight for the final wild card slot. He’s never played a full NHL season and has missed a few starts because of injury, but now will miss several games due to the loss of his father.

Plus, Pittsburgh misses players such as Neal and Fleury to Vegas, along with unrestricted free agents Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, Trevor Daley, Ron Hainsey and Chris Kunitz, all of whom didn’t fit into GM Jim Rutherford’s budget, killing the team’s secondary scoring.

Tristan Jarry will hold the fort for now since Antti Niemi was traded to Florida, then to Montreal to replace veteran Al Montoya, who went to Edmonton to try and help slumping Cam Talbot in goal.

Meanwhile, there is nothing wrong with Martin Jones (SJS), Carey Price (MTL), Jonathan Quick (LAK), all on teams with holes or age among the defensemen.

Metro mayhem

Last-place Carolina is only five points out of a wild card berth, while Philadelphia is a mere three points away. Can either make the complete leap?

Among the pair, I now prefer the Flyers, thanks to several moves. The most obvious was switching Claude Giroux from center to the wing and giving youngster Nolan Patrick a legitimate shot to prove he can play at center.

If I needed to pick the 2018-19 GM of the Year some 15 months in advance, my call is on Ron Hextall, who was being called “Hack-stall” until he proved his ability in the Art of the Trade.

The one question mark: Is Brian Elliott the long-term solution in net in front of career backup Michal Neuvirth?

Note: The Flyers rallied from 0-2 down to beat Toronto 3-2 on the night they retired the number of Eric Lindros (88). They’re now 5-0-0 when retiring a former star’s jersey.

Something’s Bruin

The Boston Bruins have not lost in regulation since Dec. 14, posting a stellar 11-0-4 mark. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask may now be the leader for the Vezina, while a soft schedule looms ahead against teams in the weak Atlantic Division.

We’ll find out how good Boston really is at the end of the month with a three-game stretch against soaring Anaheim, St. Louis and Toronto (which has center Auston Matthews back on the ice).

Willie O!

Almost lost among last week’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration was the anniversary of Willie O’Ree breaking the National League’s color barrier.

On Jan. 18, 1958 – yes, it’s been 60 years – O’Ree was called up from the minors for an injured player, suiting up for the Boston Bruins in a game at the Montreal Forum against the Canadiens. O’Ree played on a line with center Don McKenney and right wing Jerry Toppazzini.

Keeping secret that he was blind in one eye, O’Ree played two NHL games that season, then returned for 43 games in 1960-61, registering four goals and 11 assists. O’Ree remained the lone black in the NHL until 1974, when the Washington Capitals drafted Mike Marson.