LAS VEGAS — The opening month to the Vegas Golden Knights’ 2022-23 season is almost complete and things couldn’t have gone much better for the anchor tenant of T-Mobile Arena.
Not only do the Knights lead the Pacific Division with 14 points following Friday’s 4-0 shutout of Anaheim, they are at the top in the Western Conference through nine games and are second to Boston for the best overall record in the NHL at 7-2 (the Bruins are 8-1).
The 7-2 start is second only to the inaugural season when the Knights were 8-1 in their first nine (they were 7-2 in 2020-21 when the NHL started its pandemic-shortened season in January). Few if any of even the most ardent supporters thought this team would get off to this good of a start. Many thought it would take longer for the players to accept and understand new coach Bruce Cassidy’s system. But they have responded faster and executed better than expected. I’m guessing the same things are being said in Boston, where Jim Montgomery, Cassidy’s replacement as head coach of the Bruins, has his team playing better-than-expected hockey in the early going.
October’s slate ends Sunday against Winnipeg, a team Vegas has already beaten this year. But a major test is forthcoming for the Knights. A five-game Eastern road swing awaits Cassidy’s club, starting Tuesday in Washington D.C. against the Capitals. Vegas then goes to Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and Buffalo before returning home Nov. 12 against St. Louis.
We’ll see how this team handles the heavy lift that awaits it. What has been working? Let us count the ways:
Strong in goal
The Knights’ goaltending has been stellar so far. Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have been strong and have become an excellent tandem.
Thompson posted his second shutout of the season Friday. He’s 4-2 with a 1.69 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage.
And the position could get stronger. Laurent Brossoit’s hip has healed and he may be close to being ready to return to action. We’ll have a better idea Tuesday when Cassidy plans to re-address the situation.
But the biggest area of concern for Vegas going into the season has turned out to be one of its greatest strengths.
“The system always looks good when the goaltender is making stops,” Cassidy said after Friday’s win. “Logan was there for us again.”
Stephenson still a steal
Remember when the Golden Knights traded for center Chandler Stephenson back in December of 2018 after Stephenson had helped the Washington Capitals defeat the Knights for the Stanley Cup a few months prior?
Stephenson was acquired for a fifth-round draft pick and he has been a contributor ever since donning a Knights sweater. It remains the best in-season trade in the brief six-year history of the franchise. Stephenson scored his fourth goal of the season in Friday’s win over Anaheim and he has handled the move to wing playing with Jack Eichel and Mark Stone without complaint and without missing a beat. Together, they are becoming a lethal combination as Cassidy’s top line and his early-season decision to put them together looks like a genius move right now.
“I think that line can really be dangerous and do a lot of things,” Cassidy said. “(Stephenson’s) got a little more freedom playing on the wing. He gets to pucks and is really smart at reading his linemates.”
The team’s popular “Misfit Line” of original Knights Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault is playing like it did in Year One when then-coach Gerard Gallant decided to put Karlsson with the former Florida Panther wingers.
Cassidy had opted to start the season by breaking up the Misfits. But he put them back together a week ago and the results are nothing but positive. Karlsson has four goals. Marchessault has a team-leading five goals and Smith, who notched his 100th career VGK goal Friday on a second-period shorthanded tally, has a pair along with five assists. They’ve accumulated 22 points in nine games and look like a solid second unit.
Karlsson, especially, appears reborn playing under Cassidy. He had tailed off dramatically since his 43-goal season in Year One to where he had just 12 last year. He already has four in nine games.
“A little bit,” Karlsson said when someone asked if he was playing with a chip on his shoulder this season. “I wasn’t happy in my performance (last year) and I want to get back to being the player I know I can be.
“When you’re confident and having fun, that’s when you play your best.”
A healthy Eichel, a happy Kessel matters
Eichel is doing Eichel things offensively. He’s seeing the ice, making good decisions, and is nearly at a point-a-game pace. He’s still getting comfortable playing in Cassidy’s system, which requires the center to come back and help take away the middle of the ice in the Knights’ defensive zone. He’s also still finding a comfort level playing with Stone and Stephenson after opening the year with Smith and Phil Kessel as his linemates.
But the fact Eichel is contributing and says he’s having fun playing hockey again has been an important part of Vegas’ fast start.
As for Kessel, he is the NHL’s new Ironman with 991 consecutive games played, a number which is simply mind-blowing. He’s off to a bit of a slow start offensively with just three points in nine appearances. But playing against third-liners should boost his production now that he’s off the top line where he sees better opponents defending him.
“We’re not asking him to be the Phil from when he was 21 or 25,” Cassidy said. “But he’s adjusting and he’s a very smart player. He’s contributing.”
Everyone’s bought in
When Cassidy replaced Peter DeBoer, everyone knew changes would be coming. There’s a level of accountability that may have been lacking at times and that has changed. You would think it would take time for everyone to get on board but the Knights have embraced Cassidy’s philosophy and the results are proof that it’s working.
“Not at all,” Smith sad when asked if he was surprised by the team’s buying in and succeeding as a result, “We have a lot of smart guys in this room.”
Cassidy said: “You never know how it will be until it’s received by the players. What I’m seeing is that it’s become more natural. They’ve grasped the concepts and we’re clogging the middle and getting our D closer to the net.”
As a result, what has happened is the Knights have forged their identity under Cassidy. They are averaging 3.3 goals a game which in the NHL will keep you in the hunt most nights. More important, they’re a stingy team to play against. You don’t want to chase the game against Vegas and when Anaheim fell behind 2-0 in the second period after Smith scored a shorthanded goal, it was pretty much a done deal for the Ducks, who are the NHL’s worst team at 1-6-1with just three points in their eight games so far.
“We want teams to know that when they come into The Fortress (T-Mobile Arena) they’re not going to get much,” Cassidy said.
Turns out, nobody’s getting much of anything against the Golden Knights right now.