LAS VEGAS — Remember during the summer when everyone was wringing their hands over a perceived lack of quality depth for the Vegas Golden Knights?
What if one of the key forwards got hurt? What if they lost one of their six regular defensemen? What would happen if one of the goaltenders went down with an injury?
Well, all of the above has happened in the first 2 1/2 months of the 2023-24 season. And guess what? Not only are the Knights in first place in the Pacific Division, they have the most points in the entire NHL.
Sunday’s 6-3 win over Ottawa at T-Mobile Arena gave Vegas 47 points, three more than second-place Vancouver and nine more than third-place Los Angeles though the Kings have five games in hand. The Knights and Kings meet here Dec. 28 in what figures to be a huge game. Vegas is 7-1-2 in its last 10 and they bounced back from Friday’s 5-2 loss to Buffalo.
“I think we all learned last year how to win with different lineups,” said center Chandler Stephenson, who scored a second-period shorthanded goal against the Senators and is starting to warm up with points in five of his last six games. “It definitely helps to have that experience.”
The Knights have had their entire roster intact for just one game to date this entire 2023-24 season — Nov. 19 at Pittsburgh, a game, ironically, in which they were shut out 3-0. And they’re still without defenseman Shea Theodore who may not return until next month.
Sunday, they welcomed back defenseman Alec Martinez, who had missed 12 games, and goaltender Adin Hill was out for seven games. But Hill re-injured himself just 6:25 into the contest and was replaced by Logan Thompson, who appeared to have injured his right leg making a save seven minutes into the third period. Thompson was able to stay in and finish the game but he was laboring and coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t have any updates on either goaltender in his postgame news conference. But the Knights nearly had to call upon their emergency backup goaltender for the first time.
Of course, every team has injuries. And you never hear Cassidy or his players bemoan the fact they haven’t been whole this year. They merely refer to the script they used last year when they had over 500 man-games lost and still managed to win the Stanley Cup.
“We’ll never use it as an excuse,” Cassidy said. “I think there’s been a ‘next man up’ mentality even before I got here. When someone is in the lineup, they’re expected to produce.”
Defenseman Ben Hutton said it definitely feels like last year as the Knights are finding ways to win despite having key components missing.
“We have good depth,” he said. “Guys are always ready and when their number gets called, they step right in ready to contribute.”
The depth will be tested as they head to the East Coast for three games this week, beginning Tuesday in Raleigh against Carolina. Then it’s on to Florida to face the Lightning in Tampa Thursday and the Panthers in Sunrise Saturday. The Sunshine State has not been 100 percent kind to the Knights as they’ve split the 10 regular-season games they’ve played in five of the six years they’ve made the trek. They’re 4-1 vs. the Bolts and 1-4 vs. the Cats.
Of primary concern is the goaltending. If Hill and/or Thompson can’t play, Jiri Patera, who has all of three games’ NHL experience, will be in the net. In a worst-case scenario, Isaiah Saville, who has recently returned from injury to play for the Knights’ AHL affiliate in Henderson, might find himself on the trip backing up Patera.
Cassidy didn’t think Thompson’s situation was dire and that he might be OK. He’ll know more Monday.
It helps to have strong leadership in the dressing room with a lot of veterans who’ve been through this.
“We had a stretch where we were struggling,” said Jonathan Marchessault, who scored in the first period Sunday to tie the game 2-2 and leads the team with 15 goals. “We’re finding ways to win hockey games. We know if we play the right way we can have good things happen.”
Captain Mark Stone said: “We’re not worried about having the most points. We’re just looking to build little parts of our game.”
Even when some of the parts are missing. It was a formula for success last year and it’s working again so far this year.