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Golden Knights rediscover winning formula after slow start

Fleury's goaltending, return of defenseman Schmidt among keys

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The Vegas Golden Knights knew their second act wasn't going to be as storybook as their historic inaugural season. It doesn't have to be if they wind up in the same place at the end.

They look like they're on that path again.

The Golden Knights have turned their season around in less than a month. They are 9-2-0 in 11 games since Nov. 21 after starting the season 9-12-1.

Vegas opened a four-game road trip with a 3-2 win against the New York Islanders at Barclays Center on Wednesday. They continue it against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center on Friday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, ATTSN-RM, NHL.TV), confident they've rediscovered the formula that resulted in 109 points and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final last season.

Here are the key reasons for their resurgence:

 

1. Fleury's still got it

Marc-Andre Fleury, their 34-year-old goalie, has been the Golden Knights' rock all season.

"He's been the key guy," coach Gerard Gallant said. "We're playing a more solid, complete game now, but when we were winning some games [earlier in the season], we were winning them because of Marc."

Fleury's numbers have improved as the Golden Knights have improved in front of him.

He's been in goal for each of the past 11 games, winning nine, including two shutouts, with a .920 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average. He was 9-8-1 and had a 2.63 GAA and .901 save percentage through Nov. 19.

Video: VGK@NYI: Fleury makes nice block to deny Barzal

 

2. Schmidt's impact

Nate Schmidt missed the first 20 games serving a suspension for violating the terms of the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. The Golden Knights missed their top-pair defenseman.

Schmidt, who has five points (two goals, three assists) in 13 games, plays big minutes (22:10 per game) and plays them well against elite skaters. His presence allows Gallant to put his other defensemen into their appropriate roles.

Schmidt and Brayden McNabb are the No. 1 pair. They face the opposition's top lines, allowing Shea Theodore to be more aggressive on the second pair with Deryk Engelland, and for Colin Miller to do the same on the third pair with Nick Holden.

"You have to worry about playing defense at all times, but when you're playing against other lines you can be more aggressive, push the pace a little bit more," Schmidt said. "You don't have to worry about (Edmonton Oilers center) Connor McDavid flying by you."

Another key of Schmidt's presence shows up in the Golden Knights' speed. They're faster with him in the lineup because he's unafraid to take the puck and go. He encourages the other defensemen to do the same.

"He changes the tempo of our 'D,'" Gallant said.

Video: WSH@VGK: Schmidt nets late go-ahead PPG on rush

 

3. Top line is producing

William Karlsson didn't lose his scoring touch; the puck just didn't go in the net for the 43-goal scorer from last season in the first quarter of this season. Karlsson has found the touch of late, scoring six goals on 21 shots in his past nine games after getting five on 46 shots in the first 24.

He had the winning goal in three straight games from Nov. 24-29. He has two game-tying goals and one go-ahead goal since Dec. 1.

"He scored big goals in the last few games, which is great to see," linemate Reilly Smith said.

Smith is also breaking out of late; he has 15 points (three goals, 12 assists) in his past 13 games after getting seven points (three goals, four assists) in his first 20.

Jonathan Marchessault, who had 75 points last season, hasn't had his breakout stretch yet like his linemates. But he leads the Golden Knights with 12 goals, and he's tied with Karlsson for the team lead with 24 points.

Video: VGK@NYI: Karlsson wires wrist shot past Lehner

 

4. Pacioretty's presence

Forward Max Pacioretty signed a four-year contract after being acquired in a trade from the Montreal Canadiens on Sept. 10. He had four points (two goals, two assists) in his first 16 games and missed four with an upper-body injury from Oct. 28-Nov. 3.

"In years past I didn't have that honesty to allow myself to get through it. I would kind of beat myself up, but they really are supportive here," Pacioretty said. "I know I'm here for a reason and we knew my game was trending in the right direction. It wasn't going to be perfect at first."

It's still not perfect; Pacioretty said he thinks his overall game was better earlier in the season than it has been of late, but he's producing -- 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in his past 12 games -- and that's key.

"He's comfortable with the players and he knows it," Gallant said. "He can tell [linemate] Alex Tuch, 'Hey, you've got to pick your game up here.' He can do it. Before, he didn't want to do it because we had so much success last year. I think he feels comfortable now being one of our leaders."

Video: VGK@VAN: Pacioretty whips home one-timer for PPG

 

5. More numbers that matter

The Golden Knights are scoring more despite averaging three fewer shots per game in the past 11 than in the first 22 (30.4, down from 33.4), but they felt the offense was bound to click eventually.

"I think our team was a little bit snakebit earlier in the year," Pacioretty said. "We knew that eventually pucks would go in."

The Golden Knights are scoring 3.73 goals per game in their past 11 games while shooting 12.3 percent in all situations and 10.5 percent at 5-on-5. They scored 2.59 goals per game while shooting 7.8 percent in all situations and 6.4 percent at 5-on-5 in their first 22.

Essentially, Vegas is shooting and scoring its way closer to the League averages. The Golden Knights are up to 2.97 goals per game; they are shooting 9.17 percent in all situations and 7.64 percent in 5-on-5 with both goalies in the net. The NHL averages are 3.07 goals per game shooting 9.75 percent in all situations and 8.26 percent in 5-on-5 with both goalies in the net.

"You can fall into that trap of putting pucks on net and saying we deserved better," Pacioretty said. "But when the puck starts to go in, you have the confidence to make the extra play, maybe get the goalie moving, make that extra pass where you're able to get a grade A chance instead of a B chance. Having that confidence as a group, it's been part of the turnaround."

The Golden Knights are holding leads and coming back when they fall behind.

They've won six of their past seven games when they've scored first and three of their past four when they've allowed the first goal. Through 22 games, they were 6-5-1 when scoring first and 3-7-0 when allowing the first goal.

Their special teams have improved too. The power play is clicking at 25.0 percent and the penalty kill is at 86.2 percent since Nov. 21; before that, the power play was at 17.8 percent and the PK at 82.1 percent.

"We got back to what made us successful before," Schmidt said, "skating, moving the puck and being simple."

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