LAS VEGAS – In their first four seasons, the Vegas Golden Knights went to as many conference finals – three – as the Vancouver Canucks managed over more than five decades in the National Hockey League.
Yet, here they are in the stretch drive in April, both frantically trying just to make the playoffs. Last fall, only the Canucks were expected to be in this predicament.
But until the Golden Knights, ravaged by injury all season, won their last five games, the perennial Stanley Cup contenders’ position in the standings was nearly as perilous as the Canucks’.
Vancouver must win Wednesday in Las Vegas to keep the dying embers of its playoff chase glowing, while the Knights are trying to maintain momentum they hope will allow them to nip the Dallas Stars and Nashville Predators, or any combination of teams that include the Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings, at the regular-season finish line.
The fundamental difference between the Canucks and Golden Knights – besides an eight-point gap in the standings that looks like an abyss after Vegas’ 3-2 overtime victory Sunday in Vancouver – is that one team wants to win, the other one expects it.
“At this point, we are living in the moment,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon told Sportsnet. “Our challenge is to be above the cut line when playoff time comes. You just want your personnel to be as healthy as it can be, so your coach has the best chance to coach, and the team has the best chance to win. We're doing what we can.”
They have been all season.
This has been easily the most challenging campaign for a Knights team that began in 2017-18 as a miracle in the Nevada desert, winning 51 games and making the Stanley Cup Final as an expansion franchise. Prorated to an 82-game annual schedule over the last four years, Vegas has averaged 106 points per season. That represents a winning clip that the Canucks have achieved only twice in 52 years.
The Golden Knights have lost 422 player-games due to injury this season. Their top three forwards, Jack Eichel, Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty, have missed 124 games between them. Stone and Pacioretty remain out, although McCrimmon hopes both will return soon. No. 3 defenceman Alec Martinez missed 56 games, and just returned from a facial injury that kept him out four months. Starting goalie Robin Lehner’s win on Sunday was his first game since a March 8 injury, and just his fourth start in nearly two months.
“When it first starts, you sort of try to survive and stay in the pile (in the playoff race), which we have done,” McCrimmon said of the wave of injuries that began in October when Stone and Pacioretty first went down in Game 2. “Unfortunately, we're still in the pile. I never anticipated that the injuries would last so long and just compound, one after the other. Sunday, we had eight guys out. In Seattle (on Friday), we had nine guys out. Take that many guys out of your lineup and you lose your depth.”
But, still, Vegas is 39-28-4 and trending upward. The Canucks are 32-28-10 and have won just three times in their last 13 games, losing another three in overtime.
The Knights have a lot of players who have done nothing but win, and that culture counts for something now. It’s the culture the Canucks are still trying to construct.
“It's a lot of guys learning right now what it takes to win,” veteran Vancouver defenceman Luke Schenn, who won Stanley Cups the last two seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said Tuesday. “Being a part of a winning team and knowing what playoffs are like, how hard it is, shift in and shift out, nothing's easy. It's sometimes winning that little extra battle, getting the puck in deep or getting the puck out of your zone. It's all the little plays that add up. Realistically, for the last ... two months, it's been like playoff hockey for us. I think guys are still trying to figure out what it is to play playoff hockey on a consistent basis and how much every little play means.
“You've got to be focused at all times and being mentally ready is a huge part of it. When you have guys who haven't had that experience, you don't just snap your fingers and it happens. You do need to go through the experience, and I hope we continue to figure it out sooner than later.”
Golden Knights coach Pete DeBoer said after Sunday’s win that his organization’s winning culture helps during difficult times.
“You know, there's no panic,” he said. “We know the situation we're in, we know we control our destiny. We've just got to win games, and guys are doing that.”
The Knights’ resilience has been impressive – even if there are a lot of people outside Las Vegas cheering against them.
They were impossible not to like as expansion Cinderellas, especially as the Golden Knights galvanized and helped heal their city after the horrific mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert five days before the team's inaugural puck drop.
But all the winning they’ve done, and the big-money moves McCrimmon has made in adding Eichel and top defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, among others, while trading away popular original Knights Marc-Andre Fleury, Nate Schmidt and Alex Tuch have made Vegas a kind of New York Yankees West in hockey.
“We're not ashamed that we're trying to win,” McCrimmon said. “I've said many times, it's easy to do nothing, right? It's easy to do nothing and just hope things go your way. Good is the enemy of great. I'm not going to say it's easy to have a good team. But when you have a good team, it's easy to be satisfied with it.
“The thing for me is you've got to manage where you're at. And if we didn't feel or we hadn't proven that we were close, well, maybe there's no reason to go out and get Jack Eichel. But that's not how I want to run a team. We’re trying to win.”
CapFriendly.com shows the Golden Knights with a projected cap hit this season of $92.29 million, nearly $11 million over the salary ceiling. Even with the NHL’s embarrassing rejection of its salary-dump/trade last month of Evgenii Dadanov to Anaheim, Vegas has remained cap compliant because so many of its biggest and highest-paid players have spent time on long-term injured reserve.
McCrimmon and his staff will have maneuvering to do if Stone, whose $9.5-million cap charge is on LTIR, returns before the end of the regular season. Pacioretty, whose hit is $7 million, remains on regular injured reserve and can play anytime.
If the Knights get these players back and make the playoffs, no one will relish facing them in the first round, even if Vegas is a seventh or eighth seed.
“When we (finished) the offseason, we really felt that the makeup of our roster was very close to exactly what we wanted,” McCrimmon said. “We liked our forward group, our D is rock solid. (Backup goalie Laurent) Brossoit coming in under Lehner, we thought was a real important add for us. In terms of the makeup of our roster, we were really satisfied. And then we added Eichel, which certainly made us a better team again. If we can get in, I think we know what to expect at playoff time. We will be a tough out.”
Schenn said: “All they’ve tried to do is win. They do literally whatever it takes and bring in whoever it takes to try to win. There's no question they're still an elite team.”
The Canucks travelled to Las Vegas Tuesday without top-six winger Brock Boeser, who became collateral damage Sunday when teammate Elias Pettersson hit Ben Hutton along the boards. Vancouver may also be without star defenceman Quinn Hughes, who missed practice on Tuesday due to non-COVID illness.
“At this stage, the only thing that matters is wins and losses,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said, when asked about the difference in culture between the teams. “You create culture by winning, and, I mean, I think we've won a lot more than we've lost since I've been here ... and we compete hard most nights. We get a chance to knock them off, then great. I know they want to sit there and beat us and eliminate us as soon as possible.”