The Vegas Golden Knights are having an expansion year for the ages in the National Hockey League, but with just 14 games left in the regular season—and a playoff berth all but clinched—the team faces some serious questions as it prepares for its inaugural run at the Stanley Cup. It's important for the Golden Knights to secure as much home-ice advantage as possible at T-Mobile Arena in the postseason, so they need to start preparing for that opportunity now.
Despite Saturday's 2-1 shootout win in Buffalo over the lowly Sabres, the Vegas squad has hit a little rough patch of fatigue in the last handful of games. The team lost three straight last week and then again on Tuesday in Columbus. Overall, the Golden Knights are 44-19-5 this season, which is good enough for first place in the Pacific Division, currently, with a 12-point lead over the San Jose Sharks.
The division lead looks safe, but overall, the Vegas organization needs to focus on the playoffs, and the team is only going to go as far as its goaltending takes it in the postseason. This is where veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury enters the conversation. His last two games have been excellent, as he's won both and allowed just one goal in 125 minutes of regulation and overtime hockey. This season, his numbers are very good as a whole: a 24-9-3 record, a 2.16 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage.
If those numbers hold through the final stretch of the regular season ahead, Fleury will post the best statistical season of his 14-year NHL career. At age 33, that's saying something considering he's won three Stanley Cups in his distinguished career. That's the Fleury the Golden Knights want in net for the postseason, but it's going to require that the veteran goalie get some rest over the next months before the playoffs start.
In February, Fleury made 12 starts in a 14-game stretch, and it wore him out a little bit. He posted a 2.74 GAA that month, and it raised concerns over whether the Vegas organization could rely on him for quality postseason starts. Fleury has been a little better in March so far, but the fatigue factor remains significant. Fleury may have gotten a lot of physical time off with his concussion earlier this season, yet the Golden Knights need Fleury at his best in April, May and hopefully June.
The biggest challenge right now for the Golden Knights, as it was when Fleury was out with his concussion, is the backup situation. No. 2 goalie Malcolm Subban has been out since early February with an upper-body injury, and there is no timetable for his return. Subban has been pretty good in his role, posting an 11-3-1 record. However, the other three goaltenders for Vegas this season have combined for just a 9-7-1 mark overall—solid, for sure, but probably not a Cup-winning recipe for success.
There lies the dilemma: With Subban out, how many games can the Golden Knights afford to rest Fleury for down the stretch if they still want to win the Pacific Division and secure home ice for at least the first two rounds of the postseason?
Answering that problem becomes one of simple math: Vegas needs seven more points to mathematically clinch the division. That's three wins and an overtime loss, over the final 14 games. The Golden Knights should be able to accomplish that, with eight home games at T-Mobile Arena left on the schedule. Vegas currently has 24 home-ice wins, tied for the best number in the Western Conference.
In addition, with Saturday's victory in Buffalo, the Golden Knights broke the record for most road victories (20) by an expansion team, so they're no pushover away from Sin City, either.
Vegas has home games remaining against Vancouver (25-34-9) and Arizona (21-34-11), the two worst teams in the conference. The Golden Knights also have a road game at Vancouver left on the schedule as well. If the team can win those three games, they'll just need one more win (or an overtime loss) in the other 11 games to win the Pacific Division and secure home-ice advantage at T-Mobile Arena for at least the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Keeping that in mind, Vegas management definitely can find a few games here and there to rest Fleury, keeping him fresh for the postseason. It may be the team's only option if the Golden Knights want to make a serious run for the Cup.
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