LAS VEGAS — The Vegas Golden Knights struggled when they opened the season and wound up in last place in the Western Conference at one point, a humbling stumble for a team that was just a few months removed from a charmed run to the Stanley Cup Final in its first year of existence.
With the addition of Mark Stone and four stacked lines, the defending conference champions may be hitting their stride at the right time as the playoffs arrive.
Vegas opens the postseason Wednesday in San Jose, a rematch of the second-round series won by the Golden Knights in six games last season.
Stone, a top-line talent who came to the team at the trade deadline, joined offseason acquisitions Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty to form one of the most dangerous lines in the league. Vegas is 11-4-2 since acquiring Stone from Ottawa.
“You look at the entire group as a whole, we have depth, and a lot of teams have that,” Stone said. “We’re just looking to build as deep of a team as possible, and I think we’ve done a good job of that.”
That includes what has been Vegas’ top line the past two seasons: Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith — the team’s top three points scorers, with 59, 56 and 53, respectively.
Stone leads everyone with 73 points, but 62 came with Ottawa, before he arrived in Las Vegas.
Coach Gerard Gallant doesn’t see a difference in the lines consisting of his top six forwards, as he tends to alternate the two in the starting lineup.
“Truthfully, there’s no second line for me,” said Gallant, last year’s Jack Adams Award winner. “There’s a lot of talent in both of those lines and when both of them are playing well, everything’s going right, it’s a tough team to beat.”
Then there’s the bottom six, which on any given night has produced all the offense the Golden Knights need.
Alex Tuch ranks fourth on the team with 52 points, Cody Eakin is sixth with 41 points and the goal-scoring duo has given the Golden Knights depth at the third line, something they lacked last June when the Washington Capitals celebrated their first Stanley Cup title on Vegas’ home ice.
The fourth line of Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, William Carrier and Ryan Reaves is the blue-collar line that can wreak havoc from a physical standpoint, or produce offense when the opposition least expects it.
Reaves leads the league with 305 hits, while Carrier ranks fourth with 277.
“We know what we can and can’t do,” Stone said. “We need to be playing our style of hockey at the right time, which is whenever the playoffs start. We’ve had spurts of great hockey, but as far as putting a 60-minute game together, we haven’t quite done that yet.”
The Golden Knights’ depth, and offensive potential to break out in any given game, could cause problems for San Jose, which hasn’t had the consistency it would like between the pipes. Out of 56 goalies who made 20-plus starts this season, Sharks starter Martin Jones ranks 52nd in save percentage at .896. His backup, Aaron Dell, is last at .886.
And with what appears to be a healthy roster heading into the postseason, Gallant has a stable of forwards he can call upon to play on any line, at any time. For the second year in a row, their mindset isn’t about proving they belong on a specific line, it’s about how eager they are to play alongside different teammates when needed to help the team.
“You have a good culture, good group of guys, good work ethic, you look around the room and everyone is humble and having fun,” Eakin said. “There’s gonna be times all year where guys are going down, guys are jumping around, lots of different line combinations. But you get a good, hardworking group of guys without egos, that’s when the fun happens. That’s when you can gel and bond and develop some chemistry.
“It comes from good, strong work ethic from the guys, good guys that want to do better for each other than just for themselves.”
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