Golden Knights learn to play without their captain

A third line consisting of William Carrier, Chandler Stephenson and Phil Kessel lit up the scoresheet with three goals and six points in Tuesday's 5-1 win over Nashville as the Golden Knights resumed their season following the All-Star break.

LAS VEGAS — It’s not easy for a team to adjust the way they play more than halfway through its season. But the Vegas Golden Knights have no choice.

They are going to be without their captain as Mark Stone is not expected to return during the remainder of the regular season after undergoing another back surgery on Jan. 31. So unless and until they find a suitable replacement, the players at coach Bruce Cassidy’s disposal will have to pick up the slack in Stone’s absence.

Tuesday, the season resumed in Nashville and Cassidy stuck with a third line made up of Chandler Stephenson centering for William Carrier and Phil Kessel, It’s a line with speed, experience and a sneaky ability to generate offense. They may be the third line by number but they were front and center in the 5-1 win over the Predators and came in front of the Golden Knights players’ fathers as the team’s “Dad’s Trip” continued to be a successful endeavor.

Going back to the first trip in December 2017 which started ironically, in Music City with a 4-3 shootout win as Malcolm Subban starred and continued with a 5-3 win at Dallas the next night, whenever the dads show up, the sons perform well. Vegas is 6-0-1 on Dad’s Trips and they’ll be on hand Thursday in Sant Paul when the Knights meet the Minnesota Wild.

Obviously, given the success the team has enjoyed with the dads in tow, you might wonder why this isn’t a permanent endeavor and they go on every trip? One, that’s not realistic. These dads have lives and obligations. Two, if they were around all the time, you might see some pretty good fracases break out between fathers and sons. So two games a year is plenty. Besides, that’s what the tradition dictates.

Enough with the dads. Let’s get back to the sons. 

This Carrier-Stephenson-Kessel line had three goals and six points total Tuesday with each member lighting the lamp. Cassidy had tried the trio in the previous game, a 2-1 loss on Long Island Jan. 28 against the Islanders and the lone goal was scored by Carrier with Kessel and Stephenson assisting. It worked then, it worked Tuesday and it’s likely going to remain intact until the three guys prove they can’t contribute or someone gets hurt.

The Knights also got their defense corps back intact with the return of Zach Whitecloud, who had been out since early December with a leg injury. He was reunited with Nic Hague and they looked as comfortable as usual, playing just over 18 minutes. That continuity is important as they did a great job of helping goalie Adin Hill, who set a career high for victories with his 13th of the season and got an assist on Alex Pietrangelo’s empty-net goal with a minute remaining. They also transitioned out of their own end and it allowed the Knights to quickly erase an early 1-0 deficit and respond with five unanswered goals while limiting the Predators to just 17 shots, only six in the first 40 minutes.

The win catapulted Vegas back to the top of the Pacific Division standings with 63 points. But the teams chasing them have games in hand so don’t get too giddy. But with just 30 games remaining, every point matters. So this was an important two points.

There are still some issues. Jack Eichel played well but didn’t dent the scoresheet. He’s at nine games and counting since he last scored a goal. He needs to find the back of the net and soon.

Same for Reilly Smith, who has failed to score in 13 straight. And Jonathan Marchessault is without a goal in 10 consecutive matches.

The team’s power play remains an issue. The Knights are 3-of-30 over a 15-game stretch going back to late December. And there’s no Steve Stott to blame for the lack of results. Cassidy needs to get this working.

But anyone who watched Tuesday night came away feeling hopeful that this team will be able to manage without Stone. Meanwhile, we’ll see if general manager Kelly McCrimmon can swing a deal to get some more offense injected into the lineup. At some point, perhaps as early as today, Stone will go on LTIR. That will free up his $9.5 million salary for GMKM to go shopping. 

As I said last week, McCrimmon’s options are limited. Renting a Patrick Kane or a Vladimir Tarasenko for a couple of months may not get the desired results and the assets you would lose from such a transaction would not justify making that move.

The answer more than likely will need to come from within. Maybe Paul Cotter goes on a small heater and contributes offensively for three or four games. Perhaps Nicolas Roy finds the back of the net every couple of games. Obviously, having Eichel, Smith and Marchessault scoring would alleviate a lot of concerns.

The goal for this team isn’t “Cup in Six.” It’s about making the postseason and getting the opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup. You know the old line, “You have to be in it to win it.” So the first order of business for the Golden Knights is to make the playoffs. Staying healthy will go a long way toward achieving that goal. But getting those who are in the lineup to produce and do their jobs is the more important part of the equation.

And if they need a reminder, just pull out the tape of Tuesday’s game and give it a look. 

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