LAS VEGAS — It’s nearly the end of the regular season. But in some respects, it feels like it’s the preseason. Especially if you’re Bruce Cassidy.
The Golden Knights coach has some critical decisions to make, not the least of which is who will be his starting goaltender when the playoffs begin?
Is it Logan Thompson, who has missed 25 games this season including the last seven with lower-body injuries and has never appeared in an NHL postseason game? Will it be Laurent Brossoit, who has played well of late and is arguably his best option. However, Brossoit’s playoff experience consists of all of one game, which came six years ago when he was with Edmonton. Or does Cassidy put his trust in Jonathan Quick, he of the two Stanley Cup rings, the 92 playoff appearances and the motivation to show his former team it was wrong to trade him last month?
Thursday, the nod went to Brossoit over Quick, who would’ve been in revenge mode had he started. But Brossoit delivered, stopping 30 of the 32 shots he faced as the Knights defeated the Los Angeles Kings 5-2 at T-Mobile Arena. Brossoit improved to 5-0-3.
“Right now, L.B. and Quick are healthy,” Cassidy said. “It was a tough decision. Quickie wanted play. But L.B. got the call and he played solid.”
Cassidy has some other decisions to make with his skaters. Does rookie right wing Pavel Dorofeyev stay in the lineup? Does Cassidy find a spot for defensive-minded center Teddy Blueger? What happens if Mark Stone and William Carrier are able to return for the playoffs? Who comes out?
Cassidy did do a bit of juggling, putting Ivan Barbashev with Chandler Stephenson and Phil Kessel on the third line and they delivered in a big way. Each scored a goal as part of a three-goals-in-3:13 span that gave Vegas a 3-0 first-period lead after the Kings had a goal taken off the board following a successful coach’s challenge for offsides.
“It definitely was interesting,” Stephenson said of the sequence, which included his goal counting after Kessel was knocked into the net and it came off its moorings. “But I liked the way we played. Phil’s still got it. He found ways to get open. Barbie’s been solid since he got here. You know what you’re going to get from him every night.”
Cassidy said he has a pretty good idea at this point what his lines are going to look like. It’s more about tweaking things rather than going for wholesale changes this late into the season.
“You want to try and keep pairs together and drop a guy in,” he said of his logic. “Barbie can play with anyone, so putting him with Stevie and Phil wasn’t a difficult decision. They did a tremendous job. They’re veteran guys you can count on.
“What I really liked was having Nic Roy on the fourth line at center with (Keegan) Kolesar and (Brett) Howden. I thought they were really effective.”
But it all starts in the net. A hot goaltender can carry a team a long way, even as far as the Stanley Cup itself. Cassidy has all the analytic data he could ever want. He also can trust his own eyes. One thing’s for sure, the idea of rotating goalies during the postseason is one that rarely brings success. You pick a guy, you ride with him and you hope he can get the job done.
To that end, it was interesting that Cassidy opted for Brossoit Thursday night in a critical showdown with the Kings, Quick’s former team. The two teams are in a three-way battle with Edmonton for the top spot in the Pacific Division, which comes with home-ice advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.
When Quick was obtained from Columbus, he undoubtedly circled April 6 on his calendar and no doubt would have loved to have been on the ice against his former mates. But while Quick has played well during his time in Vegas, the reality is Brossoit has been consistently better. And the fact Quick played Tuesday in Nashville after Brossoit played both ends of a back-to-back vs. Minnesota seems to indicate which way Cassidy is leaning.
Of course, there’s still the question of Thompson’s availability. He is skating and he may be ready to practice with the team, which would pave the way for a return to the net next week against Seattle. It would be like an audition for Thompson, who would’ve likely been the playoff starter had he not gotten hurt and forced the Golden Knights to deal for Quick.
I have no doubt Thompson has gained the trust of Cassidy. The coach speaks highly of him whenever his name comes up. But does Cassidy trust Thompson with the team’s playoff fate?
It’s a huge decision, one that may very well be influenced by who the Golden Knights play in the first round along with who is available to play on the four lines and on the three pairs of defensemen.
I’ve always believed you play your hot hand in the playoffs. If Brossoit is indeed Vegas’ best goalie, you should start him. If it’s clear early on that he’s not capable of getting the job done, you do what Barry Trotz did in Washington during the 2018 playoffs — you make a change.
You may recall the Capitals were down 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs when Trotz sat Philipp Grubauer and inserted Braden Holtby. Ultimately, the Caps skated around T-Mobile Arena with the Stanley Cup as Holtby caught fire and Trotz looked like a genius.
Could something similar happen with the Golden Knights?
“It’s more about how we play in front of our goaltender,” Cassidy said when asked if he might consider continuing to rotate his goalies come playoff time. “If we play the way we’re supposed to play, we’re fine. If we get loose and give up high-quality chances, then we’re asking whoever is in goal to come up with more stops.”
Perhaps he’ll go that way. But I didn’t think the team’s goaltending was good enough to win the Stanley Cup last summer, and that was when Robin Lehner was still in the equation. But when I look at who’s playing in goal for the other Western Conference playoff teams, I believe Vegas is good enough to win. It’s when June rolls around and you’re in the Stanley Cup Final that I might question the quality of the goaltenders. The Knights are not as good in net as Boston is, as Tampa Bay is, as the Rangers and Islanders are. And for a team whose owner’s mantra has been “Cup in Six,” it may ultimately be the Golden Knights’ undoing, no matter who Cassidy decides to roll with.
Thursday, everything was fine for Vegas, from the net out.
“It was a night where we didn’t have any passengers,” Cassidy said.
Remembering Joe Pane
I wanted to acknowledge the passing of fellow local hockey journalist Joe Pane, who had covered the Golden Knights since their inception for the Las Vegas Advisor. Joe died earlier this week after suffering a ruptured aorta valve.
Joe and I had much in common. We both are originally from Brooklyn, though we grew up in different neighborhoods. We were both hockey players and we both loved the game. We grew up rooting for the hometown Rangers but I switched allegiances to the Islanders in 1972 when they were formed. Joe used to kid me about being a traitor but always good-naturedly. He worked as a policeman in New York and was part of the security detail at Madison Square Garden the year the Rangers finally broke their 54-year hex and won the Stanley Cup in 1994.
Like me, he also wrote a book about the Golden Knights’ amazing inaugural season and we used to have good discussions about the team and the game in general. Joe was extremely knowledgeable about hockey and I always enjoyed our chats.
The team left a vase of white roses in his honor Thursday at his normal press box seat at T-Mobile Arena. It was a very nice gesture on the Golden Knights’ part and he will be missed by those of us who cover the team and benefitted from his wisdom and professionalism. Cassidy opened his postgame remarks by offering his condolences and I want to also offer my sympathies to his family and friends, both here in Las Vegas and back in his native Brooklyn.