Weekend Takeaways: Golden Knights in need of reset amid frustrating slump

Matthew Barzal scored the overtime winner while Semyon Varlamov stopped 44 of the 45 shots he faced, including a penalty shot in the extra frame, and the New York Islanders defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 2-1.

The Vegas Golden Knights had their top goal-scorer staring at an empty net with a chance to pull his team even in a crucial road game and, wouldn’t you know it, they still couldn’t get that puck to go across the line.

Then again, right now, if there’s a team that’s going to be on the wrong end of a desperation paddle save, you’d almost expect it to be Vegas.

The Knights were in UBS Arena on Saturday doing battle with the New York Islanders when Will Carrier slid a pass from the high slot to Reilly Smith at the side of the goal. In the split second Smith took to accept the pass and slightly change the angle of his blade before snapping it home, the right arm of Semyon Varlamov shot out and the underbelly of his big goal stick got in the way of a sure goal for Smith.

It was save-of-the-year stuff.

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The Islanders — pretty hard up for wins themselves these days — wound up claiming a shootout victory to give themselves a crucial four-point weekend after beating Detroit on Friday.

Vegas, meanwhile, sunk further into the Western Conference muck as a hot start in the desert has all but dried up entirely.

It’s probably a bit alarmist to start talking about Vegas falling out of a playoff spot completely, but the Pacific Division they initially had a strangle hold on is now a complete jump ball between the Knights, Kraken, Kings and Oilers.

After starting the year 13-2-0, Vegas has played to a .500 record, going 16-16-4 in what basically amounts to half-a-season’s worth of games since Nov. 12. The club has one win in its past seven outings as it pauses for a 10-day break.

Hopefully, the Vegas players can unplug a little during their hiatus, but you know first-year Knights coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t going to have too many restful moments.

With captain Mark Stone sidelined by a back injury that’s expected to keep him out a while, the Knights have scored two or fewer goals six times in their past seven contests. On Jan. 5, Jack Eichel returned from a lower-body injury to score three points in a win over Pittsburgh. Since then, the team’s No. 1 centre has one goal and one assist in his last 10 games.

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Rookie Logan Thompson isn’t getting much run support, to be sure, but his numbers have slipped a bit, too. Among goalies who’ve played 250 minutes this month, his five-on-five save percentage of .905 ranks 24th in the league.

Given how well they started out of the gate, maybe Vegas can string together a few wins coming out of this little reset. If not, the door to that conversation about missing the playoffs — for the second straight year, no less — is going to swing wide open.

Other Takeaways

• We’ve spent no shortage of time speculating about the futures of San Jose Sharks Erik Karlsson and Timo Meier; it’s really too bad the salary cap negates us from including Logan Couture on that list, too. The 34-year-old provided us with our 13th five-point game on Saturday, contributing three first assists before he got the game-winner and empty-net clincher in a wild 6-4 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. With his big night, Couture is tracking close to a 70-point season, but even as a 60-point guy who knows his way around every corner of the rink, he’d be such a valuable addition to a contending team’s middle-six centre mix. Alas, a cap hit of $8 million per year through the 2026-27 season means the Sharks captain will likely remain in Northern California hoping the San Jose rebuild happens in time for him to once again play a key role on a good team.

• Speaking of the Penguins, things are starting to get mighty interesting around the final two Eastern Conference playoff berths. Suffice it to say, giving up six to San Jose was not was the Pens had in mind as they continue to scramble with starter Tristan Jarry shelved. As noted, the Isles got a critical four points to jump back into the conversation and Buffalo concluded an awesome road trip with a shootout loss to the Wild on Saturday, giving the Sabres seven of a possible eight points after visiting Dallas, St. Louis, Winnipeg and Minny. It was awesome to see Nicklas Backstrom score his first goal of the year Sunday night in Toronto after off-season hip surgery, but Washington was pumped 5-1 by the Leafs. Even Florida, with a desperately needed 4-3 overtime win against the Bruins, is hanging around. Sid and Ovie’s teams still hold the final two spots, but all we can say for sure here is, unless you’re a direct fan of the Penguins, Capitals, Islanders or Cats, you’re probably really pulling for the young, fun Sabres to get in.

• It’s been amazing to see the growth of the Premier Hockey Federation the past couple years. The PHF held its All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend and while Team Canada came away with the victory, everyone who saw Team World’s Leah Lum pull the unicorn celebration is the real winner. Keep up the great work, everybody.

Weekend Warrior

It hasn’t exactly been the best debut for Paul Maurice in Florida, but the veteran coach did pick up career win No. 799 Saturday versus the Bruins. The guy who became a head coach in the NHL just a little before his 30th birthday will join Lindy Ruff as the only active bench boss with 800 victories when the Cats come out on top next. (Maurice is sixth on the all-time list, by the way, behind Ruff, Ken Hitchcock, Barry Trotz, Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman).

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (31-12-8) Morgan Rielly celebrated John Tavares’ 1,000th NHL game by scoring his first of the season in a big win Sunday night. Smiles all around.

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2. Edmonton Oilers (28-18-4) Let’s hope the Oilers started a trend when they put EBUG Matt Berlin in for a few minutes to finish up a 7-3 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. Obviously the circumstances have to be right, but what moment for any goalie in that position to actually get in the crease and go into the NHL history books.

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3. Winnipeg Jets (31-19-1) Micro view: the Jets have now lost three straight games after losing 4-0 to Carter Hart and the Flyers on Saturday. Macro: Things are still fine, but this team is actually just 10-9-0 since Christmastime with a dead even 54 goals for and 54 against during those 19 contests.

4. Calgary Flames (24-17-9) The 5-2 win in Seattle heading into their week-long break was huge for Calgary on Friday night, especially coming off a home-stinker loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

5. Ottawa Senators (23-23-3) The Sens have made a maddening habit of taking two steps back every time they seem to be getting their season on track this year. Can they finally make it stick after a big 6-2 “Battle of Ontario” win in Toronto on Friday followed by a 5-0 stomping of another rival, the Montreal Canadiens, on Saturday?

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6. Montreal Canadiens (20-26-4) What a year for Owen Beck, who — after being drafted 33rd overall by Montreal in the summer — was called back to Canada’s junior team after initially being cut to win a gold medal late in the tournament as an injury replacement, then played his first NHL game in Ottawa on Saturday after the Canadiens were so decimated by injuries they were able to make him an emergency callup from the Peterborough Petes of the OHL.

7. Vancouver Canucks (20-26-3) During a season where Bo Horvat has already equaled his previous career high in goals (31), the Vancouver captain recorded the first four-assist game of his career on Friday as Vancouver downed the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2.

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The Week Ahead

• We’ve only got six NHL games this week before the All-Star Game festivities in South Florida and the best one might come the night before the pause, with the Leafs hosting the Boston Bruins on Wednesday.

• Things get fun on Friday with the skills competition at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, then the games themselves kick off at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday.

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