LAS VEGAS — Twelve games to go. Or, as Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy referred to it, “12 bricks to lay in the foundation.”
The Golden Knights are a good team. Sunday, they did what good teams do, which is bury a bad team. In this case, it was the Columbus Blue Jackets, who tried to put up some resistance and actually hung with Vegas for a bit.
But there’s a reason why the Knights are where they are — the top team in the Western Conference — and why the Jackets are where they are — the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Too much Jack Eichel, a lot of Jiri Patera, some Alex Pietrangelo sprinkled in and the result was a lopsided 7-2 win at T-Mobile Arena in what was the final game for the Knights against the East, either until June or sometime in October, depending on how things play out in the postseason.
“I like the way we’re playing right now,” said Eichel, who recorded his second hat trick of the season and has a team-leading 26 goals. “We have a lot of people contributing and everyone is hungry.”
Patera, the 24-year-old from the Czech Republic who is the fifth different VGK goaltender to record a victory this season (he’s 2-0), got his first home start and he made it a memorable one. He stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced and he did it in front of his parents and one of his best friends, all of who traveled from Prague to see him.
“He was excellent,” Cassidy said of Patera, who likely is headed back to Henderson of the AHL as both Logan Thompson and Laurent Brossoit are expected to make the trip to Canada this week, beginning Tuesday in Vancouver. “He’s a competitive guy. He stops pucks. He makes plays in traffic. It was great for Jiri to get some NHL experience.”
Cassidy said one of his challenges in the final stretch is to get his goalies, Jonathan Quick included, enough work so each are sharp enough for the playoffs. Thompson hasn’t placed since Feb. 9 while Brossoit was last seen on the ice Feb. 25. Adin Hill, who was injured March 7 against Florida, is still on the mend.
“We obviously need to get L.T. and L.B. some work and we also want to keep Jonathan sharp,” Cassidy said. “We’ve got teams that are right on our tail so these are all important games coming up.”
The Knights have 92 points, two more than Los Angeles, three more than Dallas and seven more than Edmonton. Since the All-Star break, Vegas has been an impressive 14-3-2. And this despite injuries to Mark Stone, Nicolas Roy, William Carrier, Keegan Kolesar along with Thompson, Hill and Brossoit.
Roy and Kolesar may be close to returning to the lineup while Stone and Carrier might be ready for the playoffs.
“We’re starting to turn the corner,” Cassidy said about getting his lineup healthy and back to full strength. “We’ll see how things go but it’s trending the right way for us.”
Getting contributions from Pavel Dorofeyev, newcomers Ivan Barbashev and Teddy Blueger and having the defense corps remain intact is a big part of the Knights’ successful late-season use. Pietraneglo tied a team record for a defenseman with four assists Sunday. Zach Whitecloud make a heads-up play supporting the rush and batted the puck out of mid-air and into the net for the fourth Vegas goal.
Dorofeyev made a sensational play in scoring on the power play as he spun around in a tight space, wheeled and beat Columbus starting netminder Daniil Tarasov, who was yanked late in the second period for Michael Hutchinson, who was Golden Knights property but was dealt to Columbus for Quick the day before the March 3 trade deadline.
“He’s playing like someone who wants to keep his job,” Cassidy said of Dorofeyev, who has three goals in four games since being recalled from the Silver Knights. “You get up here a couple of times, you learn what it takes to play at this level and once you figure it out, you do what you can to stay here. That’s what (Dorofeyev) is doing.”
The Knights had an excellent year against the Eastern Conference, going 22-8-2. Now, it’s the home stretch against the West, where Vegas is 21-13-4 and just 8-8-2 vs. the Pacific Division. Of the 12 remaining contests, eight are against the Pacific, including a home-and-home vs. the Oilers, an April 6 game at T-Mobile vs. the Kings and a home-and-home against the Kraken April 11 in Vegas and April 13 in Seattle to wrap up the regular season.
And while the Knights appear to be in good shape regarding securing a playoff spot, the guys who were here last year haven’t forgotten the late-season collapse that cost the team a postseason berth and ultimately cost Pete DeBoer his job.
“I’d like to be 20 points ahead like Boston,” Cassidy said. “But we’re in a battle. We’re trying to win 12 in a row here. Don’t take your foot off the gas.”