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The Golden Knights are running out of racetrack

Robin Lehner has been injured and not great this season.

Robin Lehner has been injured and not great this season.
Image: Getty Images

Normally, a team five seasons out from its creation fighting for a playoff spot would be a mark of success. They’ve built and grown over four years, taken their lumps, accrued draft picks and developed their own, and were starting to see the first signs of something real. But nothing is normal about the Golden Knights, who for the first time in their history, are faced with the chance of missing out on the playoffs. But being left without anything after passionately chasing immediate gratification is kind of what the whole place is about, isn’t it?

But of course, the Vegas Golden Knights have never been normal, and they went from expansion team to Western Conference power quicker than Tim McCracken could remove an opponent’s eye with the flick of his stick. But with early success comes expectations and demands, and the Knights are far from those at the moment as, with just 20 games to go, they’re coming dangerously close to missing the playoffs altogether.

It’s especially acute at the moment. The Knights have lost five in a row, all in regulation, and six of their last eight. The last couple of losses were complete punkouts, a 7-3 barf-fest in Winnipeg; a 6-4 reverse in Columbus that wasn’t really that close, and back-to-back losses in Pittsburgh and Buffalo. The Buffalo loss was galling to former Sabre Jack Eichel, who couldn’t wait to show his winning personality afterward.

The streak of piss-pooredness has left the Knights in the last wild-card spot in the West, with the Dallas Stars just a point behind them and having four games in hand. The Canucks, Jets, and even the Ducks could still claim more than passing interest. This isn’t what it was supposed to be when the Knights found the supplies (i.e. prospects, picks, and cash), again, to go as big as possible with the acquisition of Eichel in the fall. Just as they did when they traded for Mark Stone, or Max Pacioretty, or signed Alex Pietrangelo. Much like the town they call home, this isn’t a place for nuance, patience, or long-term thinking. They’re going to put it right in your face.

In hockey, when a team ends up overturned in a ditch for a period of time, the first place to look is the goaltending. And most of the Knights’ answers can be found there. Regular starter Robin Lehner has missed the last week due to injury (all losses), and missed a chunk of February and in December. His deputies, Laurent Brossoit and Logan Thompson have been utter clownshoes in his stead of late (.848 and .830 save percentages in March, respectively). But that is too easy of an explanation, as Lehner hasn’t been all that good when he’s been healthy (.908 save percentage on the year, though he ranks 15th in Goals-Saved Above Expected per 60 minutes, according to MoneyPuck). It’s unclear when or if Lehner will be back, and the trade market for goalies is sparse, which is being kind.

There were whispers the Knights might have to go hat-in-hand back to Marc-Andre Fleury to bail them out, but those have quieted for now. But don’t worry, if Lehner makes it back he will assuredly find a way to talk himself out of blame and bus-toss his teammates if things don’t turn around.

And while the goalies’ performances, especially of late, have been unacceptable, in the slightest gesture of fairness it’s worth pointing out that the Knights haven’t been the best defensive team this time around. The Knights regularly used to dominate the metric leaderboards, but these days find themselves pretty middling when it comes to the defensive analytics (15th in Corsi-Against per 60 minutes at even-strength, 16th in Expected Goals Against). The penalty kill is desperately holding on to the mantle of “OK,” and the power play has been trash.

Which is another problem. The Knights don’t score that much. They’re right in the middle of the pack, 15th in goals per game, at 3.08. Which is just about where they are in goals-against per game, 17th. All of which points to this team being exactly where it should be, among the faceless rabble.

But that’s not so simple. Metrics-wise, the Knights remain one of the better offensive teams around. They’re sixth in both attempts per game at even-strength and expected goals. What they can’t do is buy themselves any luck (more Vegas metaphors) or more technically, finish. They’re 18th in shooting-percentage. Various scales have them scoring four-to-eight fewer goals than they “should” have, which is worth a few points and certainly more comfort in their positioning in the standings.

Most Knights fans, and indeed most of the organization, would point to injuries as the biggest reason the Knights haven’t polished off chances at the normal rate or above, and that isn’t wrong. Pacioretty has only played 29 games. Stone has only played 28. Eichel has played 14. Alec Martinez has played 11. Depth piece Mattias Janmark has missed the last two weeks. Nolan Patrick has played 20. And this isn’t the “four lines of anarchy” the Knights had four years ago. They can’t make up for the loss of their entire top line (though to be fair, they traded for a top-line player this season knowing it would be some time before Eichel suited up). Patches has had two month-long stints in the ice tub, and has missed this week after yet another flare-up of something.

Martinez, perhaps their best puck-mover from the blue line, might not be back at all. He’s missed four months after getting kicked with a skate and then getting COVID during his recovery, and this has all the sounds and makings of concussion problems.

When Stone might return is another matter. There is some pretty loud chatter that whenever he is actually healthy, Stone won’t return until the playoffs to preserve his cap-hit on LTIR and not force the Knights to have to jettison a useful player to fit him in under the salary cap now that they’re paying Eichel. Call it the “Kucherov Maneuver.”

Which is a fine plan and all, except you have to make the playoffs first. The next part of the schedule is no kinder to the Knights, as their next five opponents are all teams currently in a playoff spot. Things open up a bit in April, especially as they’ll see the Canucks, one of their closest pursuers, three times in a four-game span. They can put an end to Vancouver’s chase themselves.

What may save the Knights ultimately is the waywardness and tendency to get distracted by shiny things that all their competitors have. Neither the Stars nor the Canucks do anything particularly well, as the former has watched Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn age and the latter might trade away their best forward this season, J.T. Miller, before the trade deadline. The Canucks are at least getting the goaltending the Knights would kill for. And you can’t say for sure that the Oilers won’t write another chapter of the world’s longest novel entitled #HereComeTheOilers. The Knights might just have to stand still for another month.

What that gets them…well, a first-round date with the Avalanche isn’t exactly a housewarming gift. The Knights would take heart in having beat the Avs last year in the playoffs, and having Darcy Kuemper to beat in net. But if Lehner is still injured or is intent on being his most Lehner-esque, it could also be a quick trip to the bench.

Still, for a team that has made winning the Cup a right-now task, they’re not likely to just accept a season passing by or even a first-round exit. Their cap problems aren’t going away, as they’re already slated to be capped out next year. They’ll either lose a really good player (Reilly Smith has been listening to trade rumors all season) or erode more of their depth or both. There’s an argument this might be as good as it gets as Stone, Pacioretty, Pietrangelo, Martinez, Jonathan Marchessault, Smith, and William Karlsson all get deeper into their 30s.

But hey, it’s Vegas. There are far more “just missed” stories than there are “hit it big” ones.

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