Vegas Golden Knights at Tampa Bay Lightning: GAME# 45
Time: 7:30 pm Eastern Time
Location: Amalie Arena
Broadcast/Streaming: SUN, ATTSN-RM
Opponent SBNation Site: Knights on Ice
The Tampa Bay Lightning return from their mid-season break to face the Vegas Golden Knights at Amalie Arena. Vegas continues to be the surprise of the season sitting at first place in the Western Conference, trailing the Lightning in the race for the President’s Trophy. In the teams’ only previous meeting, the Golden Knights won 4-3 on a last-minute goal to shut down an impressive Bolts comeback.
Vegas enters the game following back-to-back losses to the Oilers and the Predators. They scored just two total in the two losses including a shutout loss to Nashville on Tuesday. For a team that’s ridden hot shooting percentages all season, that’s a discouraging change and one that they’ll be hoping changes back tonight in Tampa.
The Lightning enter this game having split their last eight evenly between wins and losses. This will also be their first game since perennial Norris candidate Victor Hedman suffered a lower body injury on January 11. Hedman is expected to miss three to six weeks and this game against the Golden Knights will be our first look at how the team plans to approach the blue line without its leader.
In practice on Wednesday, the Lightning moved Anton Stralman up to the top pair with Slater Koekkoek. Koekkoek hasn’t gotten many opportunities this year because the Lightning are deep at left defense. When he has gotten the chance, he’s played well and this is the first game of what is likely an audition for him to earn a more permanent role on the team. (You can read more about Koekkoek and his place in the lineup here.)
The change to the top pair means that rookie standout Mikhail Sergachev is now paired with Dan Girardi and Jake Dotchin slides to the third pair to play with Braydon Coburn. Andrej Sustr is the team’s seventh defender. With JT Brown recently waived by the team, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see head coach Jon Cooper use an 11 forward and 7 defender lineup. In that scenario, Cory Conacher would likely be the healthy scratch.
Chris Kunitz remained on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov in practice in practice yesterday. So far, the change is yielding positive results in terms of both shot share and expected goal share as the new top line is among the best the Lightning have used this season. It hasn’t translated into goals yet but if they keep creating chances, those should come eventually.
The Lightning were certainly one of the favorites to make a deep playoff run before the season started. The Golden Knights certainly were not. But that doesn’t matter now and this is a game between two of the best teams in the league. The last game between these two was fast paced and entertaining. Fans will be hoping for the same tonight but with a different outcome on the scoreboard.
A Brief Chat with Danny Webster of Knights on Ice
Danny Webster, managing editor of Knights on Ice, was kind enough to weigh in on a few questions we have about the VGK roster.
Raw Charge: On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you with the contract extension given to Jonathan Marchessault and that he is returning to the team?
Danny Webster: 10, without question. Marchessault has exceeded all expectations with how he’s played this year and he’s earned every bit of this extension. Not only has he earned it because of his play, but also because he needs to stay on one team for longer than a year. He clearly proved he’s not a one-year wonder and has thrived greatly in Vegas, becoming a fan favorite.
RC: Do you think it’s possible that James Neal is traded at the deadline to bolster elsewhere on the roster? Perhaps with a younger talented, but unproven player?
DW: At the beginning of the year, I’d say it was definitely possible. But with Vegas playing as well as it is, it doesn’t make sense to break up the band now. Neal has been outstanding on the Golden Knights’ second line and has been a steady veteran presence in an otherwise young locker room. If Neal is traded, it better be for the purpose of getting immediate value in return or the Golden Knights believe Cody Glass or Nick Suzuki can make a late-season contribution. I think Neal stays.
RC: If Vegas is serious about buying for a playoff run, what do you view as the team’s biggest need?
DW: It’s so tough to say what the Golden Knights need because it’s difficult to pinpoint a weakness for this team. If I had to pick one, I’d say another offensive presence on the bottom six. I look at Cody Eakin as someone who could be expendable. If Vegas wanted to get a new third-line center or another goal scorer to solidify the bottom six, I think that’d be the route. But that’s if you really forced me.
RC: Do you think it is an advantage or disadvantage that Vegas has so many picks to use in a trade, but lacks maybe some older prospects to use as bits?
DW: It has to be an advantage. Stockpiling assets gives Vegas the immediate advantage to develop a quality farm system, which is how George McPhee has wanted to build his roster from the get-go. Vegas’ ideal of competing for the playoffs has been expedited because of their success this season, and it gives them the flexibility to make some moves with said picks down the road.
RC: Please describe the love that you feel for the beaut that is Marc-Andre Fleury.
DW: Marc-Andre Fleury is a saint. Seriously, on a team filled with players who had chips on their shoulders and had a lot to prove, watching Fleury play what can be described as the best Hockey of his career has been one of the best storylines of this storybook season. He has been great and a wonderful ambassador for the Golden Knights in this first season.
RC: Thank you, Danny!
Both of these teams show well in most areas. Both are strong in shot share and expected goal share. Vegas gets there by being above average on both offense and defense. The Lightning’s results are driven more by their defense but they also generate lots of shots offensively.
On special teams, both have strong penalty kills but aren’t as impressive by the numbers on the power play. The Lightning in particular have struggled in recent weeks on the power play after being dominant early in the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Chris Kunitz - Steven Stamkos - Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat - Brayden Point - Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn - Yanni Gourde - Vladislav Namestnikov
Cory Conacher - Cedric Paquette - Ryan Callahan
Slater Koekkoek - Anton Stralman
Mikhail Sergachev - Dan Girardi
Braydon Coburn - Jake Dotchin
So would appear #TBLightning going 12/6 w Conacher back in. Vasilevskiy in net. Sustr likely out— Joe Smith (@TBTimes_JSmith) January 18, 2018
Vegas Golden Knights
Reilly Smith - William Karlsson - Jonathan Marchessault
David Perron - Erik Haula - James Neal
Oscar Lindberg -Cody Eakin - Alex Tuch
Ryan Carpenter - Pierre-Edoard Bellemare - Will Carrier
Brayden McNabb - Nate Schmidt
Shea Theodore - Deryk Engelland
Colin Miller - Brad Hunt