TORONTO – The Vegas Golden Knights are still a tad young for established traditions, but they do travel with three signs, each marked with a simple command, that they paste up in the corners of the walls of dressing rooms they visit.
It’s the three-pronged motto of a showtime city’s franchise built on the best blue-collar third-liners its brain trust could mine: Play fast. Play hard. Compete.
As the Knights gallop off to Ottawa following Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game they dominated everywhere except where it matters – the scoreboard – they may wish to make a Kinkos pitstop and get a fourth slogan printed: Get lucky.
In small chunks, hockey can be so many things. Exhilarating. Painful. Boring. Infuriating. Beautiful. What it can’t be is fair. That only happens over time, if at all.
If you were unfamiliar with the inequitable bounces and random results of a lightning sport played with hard rubber on frozen ice and 24 crisscrossing skate blades, you’d compare the list of players that took the expansion Knights to the Stanley Cup Final with the roster they assembled for Season 2 and see no reason why they wouldn’t be among the West’s contenders again.
Instead, they’ve slunk to 6-8-1 and the only team with a worse record in the Pacific, the Los Angeles Kings, just fired their coach.
“We’ve played better than our record is right now, to be honest with you. We had a couple bad games, but everything seems to be a little tougher than it was last year. Last year, we got all those breaks,” coach Gerard Gallant tried to explain. “The puck luck was going our way.”
It may have taken 13 months, but those who predicted the Knights’ eventual descent to Earth might finally be tempted to use their I-told-you-so.
In a 3-2 league, Vegas’s depleted offence keeps flipping the deuce, largely due to a shooting percentage that has plummeted year-over-year from 10.1 (10th) to second last (6.5).
Top centre William Karlsson alone has seen his shot-success rate tumble from the godly (23.4) to the mortal (11.5).
“We’re not capitalizing on a lot of our opportunities, and we’re letting other teams capitalize on a lot of theirs. We gotta limit those. They’re costing us games,” said Ryan Reaves. “We’re in a rut right now.”
In the analytics community’s closest measurement to luck (PDO), the Knights have plunged from top 10 (100.4) to dead last (95.8). Since the stat was invented, no team has ever finished with a PDO below 96.6.
Tuesday’s showing in Toronto, where the Knights out-attempted their hosts 82-40, compounded their unfortunate run — and underscored the Leafs’ dependence on steady Frederik Andersen, and his musical posts.
But there’s little solace in another Corsi victory.
“There’s definitely some bad luck. Two posts in the second period. But when you’re having bad luck, you need to create your own good luck,” said Reaves.
“It seems we’re having bad luck and creating more bad luck, and it’s just snowballing.”
Boy, the Knights proved their locker-space placards right Tuesday. They are still some fast, hard-working competitors. Gallant correctly believes his side deserved a better fate.
“We were just under siege. They were quicker. They were on top of us,” said Leafs coach Mike Babcock. “When you look at this game, it’s kind of like when Pittsburgh left here with the points or Dallas left here with the points. You thought you had done enough to win and you didn’t. Tonight, the shoe is on the other foot.”
The topic of feet brings us to Erik Haula and the rash of injuries and absences Vegas has been forced to deal with.
No one drives the Knights attack from the back end like Nate Schmidt, who still has five more games remaining on a trace-amount PED suspension he vehemently objects to.
No centreman outside of Toronto’s John Tavares was more coveted on this summer’s free-agent market than Paul Stastny, who was felled by a lower-body injury before he could register a point in his new uniform and is still months away from action, according to GM George McPhee.
McPhee traded away Tomas Tatar, who’s thrived in Montreal, so Max Pacioretty could be Stastny’s wingman. The 30-goal regular has found the net but twice in 11 games, and on the night of Pacioretty’s return from a suspected concussion, Haula got hit by Patrick Marleau in the neutral zone, crumpled his right ankle in gruesome fashion and left via stretcher.
“Can’t help but thinking about it,” said Marleau. “I just hope he’s OK.”
Watch below. Or maybe just don’t.
In a league that places a premium on centre depth, Vegas is now down two of its top three. Gallant had no health update on Haula, a dependable two-way pivot who ranks third in club scoring and contributes to both special teams.
“It’s a huge loss. He’s a great player for us,” said Reaves.
“Right now, we can’t afford to have guys like that out of the lineup. We’ve had some banged-up bodies. Patches and Stas and we’re missing Schmidty. We need a healthy team. It’s still not an excuse. Every team goes through it. I don’t think I’ve gone through a year with a team that hasn’t been banged up and had to fight through it.”
The ringing posts, the one-goal losses, the constant trot to the infirmary: Are the Knights, so magical months ago, simply victims of bad luck?
“I guess it is, right? It’d be nice to be to have the whole team at some point,” Marc-Andre Fleury said, post-loss. “We’re close in a lot of games, but we can’t seem to get the win, to get the two points. It’s frustrating, but we’ll keep working. It’s going to come.”
There’s plenty of time to turn things around, but this year already feels so different, so… ordinary.
The Knights aren’t the plucky misfits anymore. This time, “it’s more of a grind,” Gallant said, and the hill just steepened.
“We’re not going to make excuses,” Reaves asserted.
“We’re going to start making our own luck.”