LAS VEGAS — There was a sense of normalcy inside T-Mobile Arena Thursday night.
Jack Eichel was back in the Vegas Golden Knights’ lineup after missing 11 straight games with a lower body injury. Having No. 9 on the ice was big, not just for 5-on-5 situations, but for the power play, where he helps quarterback things and is so smart with and without the puck.
He also helped the Knights keep their collective heads above water at home with a goal and a pair of assists as Vegas defeated the suddenly struggling Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 to begin a season-long seven-game homestand. It was Pittsburgh’s sixth game straight game without a victory.
But even with Eichel, and Paul Cotter back, the Knights are far from whole. And it’s likely going to be that way for a while. They may get Jonathan Marchessault back Saturday against Los Angeles, but Shea Theodore and Zach Whitecloud are still out, and Alec Martinez is also absent. That’s half the defense corps. Forward Brett Howden hasn’t played since Nov. 23 but he is back skating and may return soon.
Of the 20 players who suited up on opening night back on Oct. 11, 11 have missed time and the team has had 105 man-games lost this season. It’s not quite as bad as last year when the Knights had more than 500 man-games lost. But it has certainly impacted their performance, particularly at home where they are 12-9.
Of course, that’s why farm teams exist. In Vegas’ case, they have called up eight players from the Henderson Silver Knights so far this season. Some, like Jake Leschyshyn and Daniil Miromanov, have had extended stays in the NHL. Others like Pavel Dorofeyev and Kaedan Korczak have had shorter stints.
Obviously, it has had a negative impact on the Silver Knights. The core of their team has been missing, almost from opening night when Cotter made the NHL roster and he would have been one of Henderson’s top players.
As a result, the Silver Knights are 12-19-3 with 27 points, eighth in the 10-team Pacific Division of the American Hockey League. But to his credit, coach Manny Viveiros hasn’t made any excuses.
“That’s life in the AHL,” Viveiros said last week. “You have to deal with it. But it’s also an opportunity for guys to get a chance to show what they can do at the NHL level.
“One good thing is we use the same system the Golden Knights use, the same terminology. Same goes for our ECHL team (the Savannah Ghost Pirates). It’s a real benefit to be used to the system, the verbiage. It makes it easier for the players.”
Korczak, who played his first NHL game in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Colorado in Denver, said: “You just try to do the best you can when you’re up there.”
Fortunately for him, he can be paired with a veteran like Alex Pietrangelo or Brayden McNabb which can ease the anxiety level a bit.
For Viveiros, knowing that on a given day he may lose a key player in Henderson to Vegas, means adjusting quickly.
“I think so,” he said when asked if this has made him a better coach. “When you face this situation, it forces you to adjust. You have to be able to build relationships real quick.”
On thing the Silver Knights have had going for them is in goal, where Laurent Brossoit has been strong. Brossoit has bounced back from off-season hip surgery and is ninth among AHL goaltenders with a 2.47 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage. He would be ready to step in should Logan Thompson or Adin Hill go down with an injury and miss significant time.
So far, that hasn’t happened. Thompson is in the Calder Trophy conversation with his 18-9-1 record, 2.61 GAA and .915 save percentage. He was the best goalie in the AHL last year and even though he has waiver-exempt status, it’s highly doubtful he plays a game inside Dollar Loan Center again.
Thursday, Thompson was accorded a nice personal honor as he was selected to the Pacific Division’s roster for next month’s NHL All-Star Game in Sunrise, Fla. Had Robin Lehner and Brossoit not been shelved due to injuries at the start of the season, Thompson may not have gotten the opportunity to shine and earn the All-Star spot.
“It’s great that they are getting the opportunity to show what they can do,” Cotter, who had a goal and an assist Thursday in his return to the lineup after missing eight games. “All you can ask is to get a chance and then it’s up to you to make the most of it.”
The contributions from the Silver Knights may not be eye-catching when it comes to the stats. But they’ve contributed enough to keep Vegas in first place in the Pacific with 56 points and the 27-12-2 record is tops in the entire Western Conference, four points ahead of Dallas.
Eichel got to watch the young guys from the press box the past few weeks and he liked what he saw.
“I think everyone who came up did a great job,” he said. “Credit to them.”