Blue Jackets rookie Cole Sillinger enjoyed the best game of his young career against the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday. With CBJ down 2-1 in the first, Sillinger skated to the slot and ate up a gorgeous backhanded feed from Oliver Bjorkstrand behind the net, sending the shot past Logan Thompson before the goalie even knew what hit him. And then with the score 3-2 in the second, the 12th pick in last year’s draft found the net twice in under two minutes, first by deflecting a Bjorkstrand slapper and then by staying calm on a one-timer during a two-on-one break. The son of former NHL Guy Mike Sillinger had his first career hat trick, and as many goals in two periods as he’d scored in the previous three months. Vegas, meanwhile, had to suffer the loss, with Sillinger’s last goal standing as the game-winner in a 6-4 final. Games like these have become a more common sight for this franchise than they’ve ever been before.
We’re long past the time when a mere trip to the playoffs, or even a couple of early-round wins, would satisfy the Golden Knights—if that time ever even existed. The ultimate example of an overachieving expansion team, the Knights began their life with a trip all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, followed it up with a fluke Game 7 loss to the Sharks in the first round, and have since hit back-to-back semis after strong regular seasons. They have already established themselves as one of the NHL’s perennial winners. But since the all-star break—10 losses in their last 14, including the last four in a row—they’ve dropped all the way down to a scary ninth place in the Western Conference. This Knights season is shaping up to be the worst one yet. What the hell happened?
Injuries, injuries, and injuries, for one, two and three. Though the Knights built themselves a giant of a team, staffed up and down with productive, prime-aged veterans, they’ve struggled mightily to get everyone out on the ice at the same time. Alec Martinez, a crucial component on the blue line, hasn’t been seen since a facial injury in November, complicated by COVID in January. Mark Stone, last year’s top points guy, is on long-term IR and has only played in 28 games this year. Likewise, top-scoring winger Max Pacioretty has already missed half the year and was out for Sunday after leaving the loss on Friday. All told, the Knights have missed an average of $19.7 million in cap hits in each game they’ve played this year, the fourth-worst season by that mark in the NHL since 2008. And though the fact that they’ve spent to the cap helps brace them against these losses, each successive injury takes another chunk out of what looked to be a mountain of a Stanley Cup contender. With what they have left, it’s looking like an uphill climb.
That’s before even getting into the knock-on effects of all these injuries, as the good players who actually do suit up for the Knights have been stretched to carry the weight on weaker lines. Mainstay forwards like Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson can create more dangerous chances when Stone and Pacioretty absorb the opponent’s best defensive matchup. Alex Pietrangelo, who’s up over 25 minutes per game at 32 years old, forms a more effective pairing with Martinez than the still-learning third-year player Nicolas Hague. Shea Theodore is seeing more minutes than ever but has watched his stats take slight regressions as he’s struggled to build on a couple of seasons that established him as one of the best blue-liners in the business.
And I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room yet, which is that the team really misses Marc-Andre Fleury. Not exactly Fleury as he is now, playing replacement-level goalie for a bad team in Chicago, but somebody who can recreate the magical Vezina season he conjured up last year, at 36. Robin Lehner was supposed to be the heir, but—would you look at that—he’s having health issues as well. And even when he has started in goal for Vegas, he’s stopped fewer shots than in any year since his 2018–19 turnaround season in New York. When you go from allowing a mere 2.18 goals per game last season—best in the league—to a 16th-best 2.98 this year, that goes a long way in explaining why you suddenly have to worry about making the playoffs.
Not that Vegas needs to be in crisis mode yet. Just a little boost, be it an injury recovery or a role player’s hot streak or a pickup at the trade deadline, could be enough to push the Knights back into a more comfortable position. And from there, as usual, anything could happen in the playoffs. But the sheer amount that Vegas has already spent severely limits the splash they can make in the next few days. Claude Giroux’s not walking through the casino doors. Neither is Brock Boeser or Jeff Petry. They might even have to move a player like Reilly Smith just to have the cap space to activate Stone. A certain amount of Vegas’s ability to avoid massive disappointment relies on the promise of internal reinforcements, and how deeply they can believe in the kinds of mind-numbing platitudes this losing stretch has forced them to spout:
“There’s always time to get back to our game,” Marchessault said. “We have to get back to our identity. It goes back to five years ago. We had no team, but we were working. We got to work. We have to put our work boots [on] and do what we do best as an organization, as a team, and just be simple.”
Yeah. Just do that.