There haven’t been many nights this season where it was clear that the Golden Knights were the second-best team on the ice. They’ve had some lopsided losses, but even in those there were some positives to take away.
The Golden Knights got thoroughly waxed Saturday night, a 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers that didn’t feel as close as the score suggested. They couldn’t contain Edmonton’s best two players — and also struggled against the other 18 guys from the visiting dressing room at T-Mobile Arena either.
“Trust me, I’m not happy the way we played tonight,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “Big game, first-place team in your division and you’ve got them in your building, and you think you’re going to come out with some fire and there was no fire.”
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl did what they do seemingly every night for the Oilers, with two goals from McDavid and three assists from Draisaitl. The issues for the Golden Knights, however, came when those two weren’t on the ice.
Take the end of the second period with Edmonton ahead 3-2, and McDavid and Draisaitl on the bench.
The sequence started at the 16:16 mark with Edmonton’s second line of James Neal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson on the ice. They forced the Golden Knights deep into the zone, and despite getting just one shot, managed a full change without leaving the zone.
Josh Archibald, Joakim Nygard and Riley Sheahan were next for the visiting team and continued what the second line started. Only at the 18:11 mark did Draisaitl hop back on, with McDavid doing the same 10 seconds later.
When it was all said and done, Edmonton had six shot attempts in a 3:04 span, all with Vegas’ third pair of Nick Holden and Deryk Engelland pinned in its own zone.
“We kept getting stuck,” Holden said. “We couldn’t get the puck and get it deep.”
There was little push in the third period, when the Golden Knights trailed the whole time. They went to the box early on an offensive-zone draw, then allowed a goal on the ensuing power play.
Edmonton essentially ran out the clock by allowing only 0.36 expected goals in the period, about half as many as either of the other two periods, according to Natural Stat Trick. Vegas pulled Marc-Andre Fleury for the extra attacker with 2:37 left, but managed only five shot attempts and two on goal, one of which came from the neutral zone.
“I didn’t think we had our game,” defenseman Shea Theodore said. “I think we have to put a better effort out there and I think they outworked us in some areas.”
The Golden Knights believe they are a playoff team and many sources agree. The Athletic pegged them with an 87% chance to make the postseason before Saturday’s game, and MoneyPuck gave them a 59.2% chance after the game.
But it’s reaching the point that it’s fair to wonder. Saturday was a big game in that it was a chance to make up ground on the Pacific Division leader, instead they fell seven points behind with more losses this season than wins at 11-10-4.
Most of those losses have come against good teams, as Saturday dropped Vegas to 1-6-2 against teams currently in a playoff spot. Of course it’s harder to beat good teams. Last year the Golden Knights were 17-21-2 in those games.
Could this game be a wake-up call?
“I sure hope so because it was disappointing from the start right to the finish,” Gallant said. “We were in the game at different times, but we just didn’t have any pushback and that’s what disappoints me with our group.”
The one win that the Golden Knights have against a playoff team this season was a 3-0 win in Pittsburgh on Oct. 19 but even that is a tad deceiving. They had two empty-net goals and were outplayed in nearly every metric, but had Fleury steal the game for them with his finest performance of the season.
Take that one out, and the Golden Knights have a minus-20 goal differential in eight games.
There’s still plenty of hockey to be played this year, and they will end Saturday night in the second Wild Card playoff spot, but concern is starting to creep into their minds.
Saturday was a 4-2 loss to a division leader. On paper you can shrug that one off, but it feels like more than just a loss. The Golden Knights looked down the best team in the division and were handedly beaten at home. That doesn’t happen much. And if they want to make a run, that can’t happen many more times this season.