LAS VEGAS — For the Vegas Golden Knights, home has been a house of horrors.
Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the fact remains Bruce Cassidy’s team is barely playing .500 hockey in the place they lovingly call “The Fortress.” Sunday’s 3-1 loss to Boston at T-Mobile Arena where Vegas couldn’t hold a 1-0 first-period lead is symptomatic of its problems on home ice this year. This team struggles to put the puck in the net. “Cellys” are in short supply these days.
“Frankly, it’s been an issue all season,” Cassidy said after Sunday’s game which wrapped up a three-game homestand that saw the Knights go 1-2 and manage just three goals in regulation. And had Jonathan Marchessault not delivered in overtime in Friday’s 2-1 win over Philadelphia, it would have been an 0-fer week.
If you want to hit the excuse machine button to explain what’s going on, feel free. Yes, not having leading scorer Jack Eichel impacts everything. Not having Alex Pietrangelo for almost two weeks now due to a family medical issue is justifiable in explaining away the problem. Fellow defenseman Shea Theodore missed Sunday’s game with the Bruins and Zach Whitecloud appeared to have hurt his right knee after a second-period collision with Taylor Hall, an injury Cassidy said afterward “did not look good.” So who knows if Whitecloud will be in the lineup anytime soon?
And you can argue that the Bruins, the NHL’s best team, and Linus Ullmark, the league’s best goaltender, are going to be difficult to defeat, even with a full roster at Cassidy’s disposal.
So what to make of Vegas’ 8-7 home record? They’ve had Eichel, Pietrangelo and Theodore for some of those seven losses. They’ve juggled lines and defense pairings. The goaltending, for the most part, has been good enough to win most of those seven games. Yeah, the roof caved in on Logan Thompson last Wednesday when the Rangers took advantage of a couple of power play opportunities to blitz the Knights with four third-period goals and turn a 1-1 game into a 5-1 Broadway Blueshirts victory.
But Sunday felt different. It’s as though impending doom was lurking, even when Mark Stone gave the Knights a 1-0 lead on an early power play. Even the crowd of 18,114, which incidentally had a ton of Bruins fans in the building, didn’t seem energized as usual and it was if they knew an unfortunate ending was looming.
Two missed breakaways. A couple of hit posts. Overpassing instead of shooting. Losing Whitecloud and asking vets Alec Martinez, Brayden McNabb along with Nic Hague to hold down the fort and support Ben Hutton and Danil Miromanov was a big ask.
But for all the woes and absenteeism on the blue line, it comes down to offense as to why the Golden Knights can’t seem to win at home. In the 15 games at T-Mobile this season, Vegas’ goals per 60 minutes is a meager 1.69. That’s the worst in the 32-team NHL. That’s puzzling considering Cassidy as the home coach gets to have the last change and he should be able to exploit certain matchups that theoretically should give his team an advantage in terms of putting the puck in the net.
“Sometimes, when you lose guys, you start to play a little more passive,” Stone, the team’s captain, said. “I think we have to get back to that aggressive style and keep plays alive.”
As Marchessault said the other night, maybe the team is trying too hard to please its fans. On the road, where the Knights are an impressive 12-2-1, they average 3.42 goals per 60 minutes. That’s third-best in the league. And Cassidy doesn’t get to have the last change away from home.
So what does he do? Does he shake things up and dismantle his lines? Does he simplify the system and hope a dump-and-chase game generates some offense? Does he make the team get on a plane in Vegas, fly around for an hour, come back to Harry Reid International Airport, then go to T-Mobile to replicate a road trip?
Hey, crazier things have happened in an attempt to break a slump.
My guess is Cassidy doesn’t go mad scientist. He may move Paul Cotter off the first line and maybe bring someone else to play with Stone and Chandler Stephenson — perhaps Reilly Smith. Hopefully Theodore returns to the lineup this week as does Eichel, who is dealing with a lower-body injury and maybe Pietrangelo rejoins the team by the weekend when the Knights return home following the road trip to Winnipeg Tuesday and Chicago Thursday.
Sometimes we forget to look beyond the doom and gloom. Vegas remains in first place in the Pacific Division. With 41 points, the Knights are still the best team in the Western Conference.
The next home game, which is this Saturday, won’t be an easy one. The defensive-minded New York Islanders are the opponent and Ilya Sorokin is one of the NHL’s best goaltenders. And while the Isles are also offensively challenged, they did put up a six-pack last Friday in New Jersey in beating the Devils 6-4.
But if this team has aspirations of competing for a Stanley Cup, it better figure out a way to score goals on its home ice and start winning at T-Mobile. The fact is, after a terrific 13-2 start, the Knights are a .500 hockey team of late with a 7-7-1 record in their last 15 games.
“We’re just having a tougher time finishing in this building, for whatever reason,” Cassidy said. “We need to correct that.”