The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (30-12-4) versus the Vegas Golden Knights (29-17-2). SBN Blog: Knights on Ice.
The Time: 7:30 PM
The Broadcast: TV - ESPN+, HULU
The Devils’ last game
In the Sunday matinee game, the Devils welcomed the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Rock, defeating them 2-1 in OT on a Dougie Hamilton laserbeam. What started as a fast-pace, high-event game — with Jack Hughes scoring his 30th of the season less than a minute in and Sidney Crosby equalising on a 4-on-4 not five minutes later — slowed down into an attritional battle, with few big chances either way and goaltending standing tall. The Devils were eventually outshot only by one, 26-25, but this was largely due to their pressure in the third period and overtime, compensating for a tired two-shot second period. Ultimately, the Devils got it done in a big divisional matchup, but again they were outplayed for the most part. Vitek Vanacek was huge in goal, especially making an unbelievable save in the second, saving 2.23 goals above expected. Check out Matt’s great recap for a more in-depth look through the game here.
The Knights’ last game
Later on Sunday, after the Devils had taken care of business, the Knights got beat up 4-1 by a University team. Visiting the Arizona Coyotes at their second-rate college arena, Clayton Keller had a hattrick as Karel Vejmelka saved 35 of 36 shots to rob Vegas. The Knights’ lone goal came in the second period, with ironman Phil Kessel sniping one on the powerplay, for his 8th goal of the season, this one assisted by Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson. Calder trophy contender Logan Thompson had a tough go of things, saving only 19 of 22 shots faced for, conceding 0.66 goals above expected. Look at what the SBNation Vegas blog Knights on Ice had to say about the loss here.
How are the Knights going?
Generally, very well. Currently, not so much. They top the Atlantic division and sit third in the western conference. However, in their last seven games they are 2-5-0, so they are certainly in a bit of a slump. If you recall, at the beginning of the season, along with Boston, New Jersey and Vegas were the hottest teams in the league. Through December 1st, Vegas and New Jersey were third and first in the NHL in points, respectively. Since then, they sit 23rd and 20th, respectively. They started off hot, but have slowed down since. Now, the Devils are 7-1-2 in their last ten, having picked up their form again, somewhat. As mentioned, the Knights have had a tough go of it in their last seven, so these two teams come in with opposite veins of form.
One reason for the Knights’ downturn in form has been the injury to captain Mark Stone, who by all accounts will also miss the Devils game. Stone is one of the best defensive forwards in the league, and also scores points. Per HockeyViz, with Mark Stone on the ice, at 5-on-5, Vegas has 15% more xG for and 15% less xG againt than league average. Without Mark Stone, these numbers drop to 2% less and 3% less, respectively. Note that these numbers do not standardise for teammates. Stone plays with top-line players, and those players will still be playing, so the impact of removing Stone will not be as drastic as these numbers suggest, but the general point is that he has a large impact at both ends of the ice, and is sorely missed when he isn’t out there.
Similar, again, to the Devils, the Knights are one of the best road teams in the league, with a 15-4-2 record. The Devils have won their last two at home, both in overtime, but are up against a confident road team. This will be a true test of whether the Devils are truly getting things going at home.
The Vegas offense
At 5-on-5, the Kinghts are an above-average offensive team. They are 9th in xG for % with 52.69% and 6th in high-danger chances for % with 54.92%. However, in terms of actual results, they are 20th in goals for percentage with 49.5%. They sit 19th in shooting percentage with 8.16%, and 24th in high-danger shooting percentage with 15.32% so they are getting unlucky and should expect to regress. All stats per naturalsttatrick.
The Vegas powerplay is 7th in the league in terms of conversion rate, scoring on 24.6% of their opportunities on the man advantage. However, they only sit 18th in powerplay goals for, having scored 31. This is because they very rarely go to the man advantage. Per Moneypuck, Vegas draw the fewest penalty minutes per 60 minutes in all situations in the league this year. When they are on the powerplay, the score well, but they simply are not there very often.
One of the main offensive threats on Vegas is Jack Eichel, who has been a revelation this season, getting back to his old superstar form and was an early contender for the Hart trophy, although this chatter has gone quiet, recently. Check his impacts from HockeyViz:
He creates more xg for than the average player and suppresses more against than the average player. An above average finisher and passer, in the 35 games he has played he has 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points. On his wing you tend to find Chandler Stephenson, who is again having a great season. Having played in all 48 Vegas games, he is second on the team in points per game after Eichel with 0.88. The Vegas second line is one of the most notorious in hockey, with Reilly Smith, William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault all being original misfits, taken in the expansion draft back when the Knights came into the league. These guys are all solid 0.6 to 0.7 points per game players, who contribute on the powerplay and defensively on the kill. Stats per nhl.com.
The Vegas defense
As mentioned above, Vegas are above average in the run of play. Only eight teams have given up fewer high danger chances at 5-on-5 than the Knights this season, whilst they are slightly above average in terms of xG against. They give up an average amount of expected goals, but high-danger chances against them are difficult to come by.
The Vegas penalty kill is 15th, as they give up a goal on 21.8% of the time when short-handed. However, similar to drawing few penalties, the Knights also take very few penalties, taking the second fewest in the league. All this suggests that this game will be decided mainly at 5-on-5, as the Devils also tend to see relatively penalty-light games. Braden McNabb and Alex Pietrangelo — who also quarterbacks the powerplay — lug the heaviest short-handed minutes.
Alex Pietrangelo is the main defenseman to be aware of, he currently sits 12th overall in the NHL in points per game for defensemen. Shea Theodore will most likely miss out with injury — if he does play, look out, he is very talented both offensively and defensively. Expect to see Alec Martinez throw himself in front of pucks all night: he leads the league in blocked shots with 147, 32 more than second place.
The Vegas goaltending
Coming into this season, people expected Vegas as a whole to struggle, simply because thier goaltending was such a massive question mark. Last season’s starter Robin Lehner was ruled out for the entire year with injury, leaving Vegas with career backup Aiden Hill and unknown rookie Logan Thompson. Per NHL.com, suffice to say that Thompson has exceeded all expectations, having gone 19-13-1 with a 0.912 save percentage, 8th in the entire league. Interestingly, per Moneypuck, Thompson has saved 2.3 goals below expected this season. He is slightly worse than expected on low-quality chances and slightly above expected on high-quality chances. On the penalty kill, of the 69 goalies to have played at least 10 games this season, he ranks 25th in save percentage, so above average. A discussion here of the Calder trophy race shows that Thompson has slowed down recently. Since starting 12-4-0, he has gone 6-8-1, seeing his Calder stock plummet. Aiden Hill has taken the net whenever Thompson has been given a rest, and has faired quite well when called upon. His 10-4-1 record is relatively better than Thompson’s — albeit with easier matchups — and his 0.907 save percentage is slightly better than average for this season. I would expect to see Thompson in net, given that the Knights are on a tough run and will desperately want to get a result against a strong opponent.
What are we trying to do here?
Vegas will be playing desperate hockey, so I want to see the Devils match their urgency. I have been complaining for a while now about the Devils starting games poorly, and not really playing up to their ability in recent games. Against a good team, I want to see the Devils come in and dominate like we know they can. Don’t start tired and have to force yourself back into the game as we have seen them do of late. Start strong and don’t leave anything in doubt.
The 5-on-5 battle, as discussed above, will be key to determining the outcome of this game. Ruff has been mixing the lines up recently, as he tends to do, but seems to have stuck with the Palat-Hischier-Bratt and Tatar-Hughes-Haula top six. Without Stones in the lineup, Vegas’ main defensive guy, there should be no excuse for the Devils’ top six, they have to win their 5-on-5 matchup.
Nathan Bastian got back into the lineup recently, and it’s clear that he isn’t yet back up to speed. The reunited BMW line has tried to exert themselves, but haven’t really got anything going. Back when the Devils were winning literally every single game, the BMW boys were key contributers on every shift, pressing opponents back, getting pucks on net. I want to see them get back to that form, and hopefully this game will give them another opportunity to find that chemistry again.
What do you think about this matchup? Who else on Vegas should we look out for that I have neglected to mention? Is the 5-on-5 battle as vital as I make it out to be, or do you envision special teams having something to say about the game’s outcome? Let me know what you think below, make sure to share this preview widely, and thank you so much for reading.