Analysis: Golden Knights’ streaks end but not before transforming season

Vegas’ fortunes looking up despite Martin Jones-led defeat to San Jose

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Steve Marcus

Vegas Golden Knights left wing Tomas Nosek, center, (92) celebrates a first period goal with teammates Brayden McNabb (3) and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (41) during a game against the San Jose Sharks at T-Mobile Arena Thursday, Jan 10, 2019.

Fri, Jan 11, 2019 (2 a.m.)

The Golden Knights sat or stood frozen along their bench in the seconds after their 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena, as if they didn’t know how to respond.

They were actually awaiting clarification from the officials on what coach Gerard Gallant thought should have been a late icing call, but some shellshock was surely mixed in. Losing has become a foreign feeling to this team.

The defeat to the Sharks snapped a pair of runs that rank second-best in franchise history, a seven-game winning streak and 10-game point streak.

“It’s fun to go on streaks like that,” defenseman Jon Merrill said afterwards in a muted monotone. “Unfortunately, it comes to an end tonight.”

A locker room is always going to be somber after a loss, but this is one occasion where the mood shouldn’t have lingered beyond a few minutes. If the Golden Knights can take a step back and assess their current standing, they’ll realize they’re in prime position.

The streaks that ended Wednesday night effectively raised the team’s long-term possibilities — an objective they’ve been chasing since a slow start to the year.

Rewind back to Vegas’ last regulation loss, on Dec. 17 against the Blue Jackets, and consider that left them clinging to a wild-card spot in the Western Conference with their playoff-probability projections hovering around 50 percent. Even after Thursday’s loss, Vegas stands only two games out of the lead in the Pacific Division and with a playoff percentage of more than 95 percent according to hockey-reference.com.

And they didn’t deviate far from the form that delivered them there in the season’s second meeting with the Sharks.

“I thought we played good tonight, overall,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said.

Vegas had a pair of third-period defensive breakdowns right in front of Fleury, leading to goals from Melker Karlsson and Joonas Donskoi in a 40-second span. Otherwise, the Golden Knights outplayed the Sharks.

They had edges in shots on goal (38-27), Corsi (53-52) and scoring chances (31-25). Fleury was on point, turning away seven combined shots from superstars Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson.

Even Gallant reminded fans why he won last year’s Jack Adams Award as the top coach in the NHL by employing slightly uncharacteristic late-game aggression. He pulled Fleury with 2:46 to play, giving the Golden Knights more than a minute of a 6-on-4 advantage during a power play.

Vegas didn’t convert, but that was partly because Sharks goalie Martin Jones was at his best. The Golden Knights had routinely cracked Jones in the past — as the veteran came in with only an .899 save percentage against his division rivals — but he stopped 36 of 38 shots on Thursday.

“We’ve got to get more pucks to the net, get more traffic to him and stuff like that,” Merril said. “I don’t know if he was the difference tonight.”

Jones made a big difference, but it’s no knock against Merrill to bark back against that idea. A great team always feels like there’s something else they could have done. A great team always holds itself accountable.

It’s just another way the Golden Knights are clicking. One close defeat does nothing to take away from the fact that they’re a contender.

The streaks may have ended, but the Golden Knights remain exactly where they need to be.

“Everyone in this room has been in this position before, where you put some wins together and you end up losing one,” forward Max Pacioretty said. “You can’t let it affect us. We’re on to the next one. We want to put together another streak here now and make sure we learn from our mistakes tonight.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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