LAS VEGAS — If ever there was a contrast of hockey teams, it was Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
At the top of the NHL standings stood the Vegas Golden Knights, who despite suffering back-to-back losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles, were tied with Boston for first place overall though they’ve played one game more than the Bruins.
At the bottom were the San Jose Sharks, who despite winning back-to-back games against Philadelphia and Edmonton, were tied with the Oilers for the worst record in the NHL, though they’ve played one more game than the Oilers and thus had a worse win percentage (.192).
So if ever there was an opportunity for Vegas to put the brakes on its modest losing streak, it was Friday. Of course, the skeptics and doubters were ready to pile on had the Knights found a way to lose to the lowly toothless Sharks.
Suffice to say, the knives stayed in the sheaths. The home team welcomed back plucky defenseman Zach Whitecloud, got a much better performance out of their special teams and kept the Sharks in their place, which is to say, 20,000 leagues under the sea with a 5-0 victory.
Maybe the Sharks could resurrect Jules Verne and put him on the power play.
But the return of Whitecloud, who was making his debut after missing all but one game in the preseason and the first 14 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury, while certainly helpful, doesn’t mean the Knights are at full strength. They’re missing Chandler Stephenson. They’re still without the Nics — Roy and Hague. So Bruce Cassidy still finds himself juggling his lineup around.
Fortunately for him, most of his moves continue to pay off, much like last year. Michael Amadio, normally a third-line winger, has been playing center on the second line with Stephenson sidelined. He had assists on the first two goals Friday. Brett Howden, who has taken Roy’s spot centering the fourth line, scored in the third period.
Defenseman Alec Martinez had a pair of goals. Alex Pietrangelo had a goal and a pair of assists. William Karlsson scored a shorthanded goal off a nice setup from Jack Eichel.
That everyone is contributing allows the Knights to successfully battle through the injuries. Cassidy has not been asking any one one or any individual to carry the team. So if William Carrier is playing second-line minutes with Amadio and Mark Stone, he’s going to have opportunities to pitch in, as was the case with his assist on Martinez’s first goal. Same for Jonas Rondbjerg, who has stayed in the lineup and has played well. He picked up an assist on Howden’s third-period goal.
“Some guys who needed to score scored,” Cassidy said. “That’s usually a good sign.”
Amadio said: “I think everyone knows when it’s their time to step up. Whether you’re playing center or playing wing, everyone does their job and that is a big part why we’ve been able to be so successful.”
The Knights were a minus-600 betting favorite over the Sharks Friday and at one point the in-game wagering had Vegas at minus-4400. That’s just crazy. But then again, the Sharks, who were on the second of a back-to-back and worked extremely hard to fend off Edmonton Thursday night in San Jose, are just not very good. Teams like the Knights expose all their flaws and even if the Sharks had a week to prepare, they likely weren’t beating Vegas Friday.
Adin Hill turned aside all 20 shots he faced in picking up his second shutout of the season. Certainly having Whitecloud back on the blue line (he had 13:44 of time on ice) helped. And the rest of the defense pitched in (the Knights had 15 blocked shots).
“The timing was good,” Cassidy said of snapping the small losing streak. “We are going on a long road trip and you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that going into the trip.”
The question is how many games will David Quinn’s team win going forward? The NHL’s record for futility in the modern era were the expansion 1974-75 Washington Capitals, who went 8-67-5 and finished with just 21 points. The Sharks, who joined the NHL in 1991, were nearly as bad in their second season, finishing 11-71-2 in a 24-team league. That team allowed an astounding 414 goals. This year’s Sharks (2-11-1) may eclipse that despite playing two fewer contests. They’ve allowed 63 goals through 14 games and their goal differential rate of minus-46 is the worst in the NHL.
They should be able to win more than eight games. They’re already a quarter of the way there with 68 games remaining. I’d like to think they can find a way to manage at least six wins the rest of the way.
As for the Knights, they have a date at the White House Monday before the season resumes Tuesday against the Capitals in Washington. There’s only three U.S.-born players on the roster (Martinez, Eichel and Paul Cotter) and Martinez has made two visits to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, both times as a member of the Kings when Barack Obama was President.
“It’s always a great honor,” said Martinez, a native of Michigan. “It’s a really cool experience. How many people get to meet the President of the United States?”