There are certain defining moments in a season. Moments that tell you what individual players are made of. Times that speak volumes for what type of team you have. Slivers in time over the course of a season that could define the limits of accomplishment, or destroy those limits entirely.
For the Vegas Golden Knights, this upcoming series against the Colorado Avalanche is one of those defining moments. This series could go a long way towards determining the mindset of both teams for not only the final two installments of the regular season series at the end of April, but a potential playoff matchup as well.
On paper the two teams are practically twins:
VGK – Wins 22, Goals For 100, Goals Against 66, +33 Goal Differential, ROW 22
COL – Wins 20, Goals For 106, Goals Against 71, +35 Goal Differential, ROW 20
There’s a lot more to corroborate my point, but this will do nicely. These two teams mirror each other in all facets of the game. Each has scoring talent up front, a tremendous blue line, and solid goaltending (although the Avs only have one goalie and Vegas has two). Special teams hasn’t been either club’s selling point but both do have Top-10 penalty kills. It’s almost a shame these two are in the same division, because I’d love to see what would happen if they went head-to-head for the Stanley Cup.
So with two teams so similar to each other in many ways, how do you prepare for that? More importantly, what can be taken away from the first four-game series earlier this season?
The first four meetings were a split. Vegas won the first and fourth games by shutting out the Avalanche, and dropped a pair of 3-2 contests in the middle. Maybe it’s just the nature of the season. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s because one of those games had an eight-and-a-half hour delay. But it seems like those games were from another season.
“I would say neither (team) was anywhere near where they are now,” said Vegas head coach Pete DeBoer in reference to the first meetings of the clubs earlier this year. “We’re both in significantly better places than those games.”
One of the biggest things the VGK were able to do in the team’s wins was keep Nathan MacKinnon and company off the scoresheet. Repeating that recipe will be difficult but important.
DeBoer says because of being on the road, the Golden Knights don’t have the advantage of last change and matching a preferred defensive pair to MacKinnon’s line.
“We’re going to have to play MacKinnon by committee and whoever is out there has to get the job done. I think we’re comfortable with that.”
It also helps the Golden Knights will have Brayden McNabb back in the lineup after missing those first four games against the Avalanche.
“(McNabb) adds some elements to our group that are unique to him with his physicality and his ability to shut people down and take away time and space… his willingness to do the dirty grunt work, block shots and clean the front of the net. It will be really nice to have him back in.”
Nic Hague echoed those sentiments about how to defend MacKinnon.
“He’s fast,” said Hague. “You have to really be aware of when he’s out there and take away his time and space.”
The Golden Knights also received some good news on the injury front following practice today. DeBoer said he expects leading goal scorer Max Pacioretty to travel to Denver with the team and said Alex Pietrangelo has made “big progress” towards his return.
Getting the offensive contributions of Pacioretty back just in time for these two massive games against the Avalanche is a definite sigh of relief for the VGK.
One thing is certain, both teams are working hard to elevate their games and ramp up towards the playoffs. And while it’s not certain, it appears the path out of the Honda West Division is going to go through one if not both of these two clubs giving this two-game set a playoff vibe.
“It’s so close in the standings,” said Will Carrier. “Every game is like a playoff, every two points is really important for us.”