Upstart Golden Knights face hot Lightning
LAS VEGAS — The Vegas Golden Knights already possess an impressive tally of milestones during their inaugural NHL season, tying or breaking records for best start (3-0-0), win streak (five, twice), most wins in the first 12 home games (10) and fewest games to reach 20 victories (31).
Perhaps the most impressive statistic for coach Gerard Gallant’s expansion squad is this one: In five games against the four teams that played in last season’s conference finals — Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh, Nashville, Anaheim and Ottawa — the Golden Knights are a perfect 5-0-0.
Now comes arguably their toughest test of the season when the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning make their first visit to T-Mobile Arena on Tuesday night.
The Atlantic Division-leading Lightning have the best record in the NHL (24-6-2), and they haven’t lost a game in December, bringing a seven-game win streak with them to Las Vegas including a 6-5 victory at Colorado on Saturday.
“Everyone wants to play in the big game,” Vegas defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “You want to be able to match yourself up against the best teams and players as well as you can. They’ve got some of the hottest players and are the hottest team in the league right now, and that’s what you want to match yourself up against.”
Tampa Bay leads the NHL in scoring (3.8 goals per game) and power-play success (27.4 percent) and is third in goals against (2.5). Right winger Nikita Kucherov leads the league in points (46) and is tied with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin for most goals (23) while center Steven Stamkos is second in scoring (43) and tied for second in assists (31).
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL in wins (21) and is third in both save percentage (.934) and goals against (2.11) while defenseman Anton Stralman leads the league in plus/minus (plus-24).
The Lightning also own a league-best plus-43 in goal differential, which is 18 better than the second place Los Angeles Kings.
“They play a fast game,” Gallant said. “I talk about our team playing fast. Well, this is probably the fastest and quickest team in the league. … They score more goals than anybody, and they play a real good hockey game. They’re a dangerous club.”
Tampa Bay spent the past two days in Las Vegas, and coach Jon Cooper gave his squad Sunday off to “check out the sights.” Cooper, meanwhile, took in the Golden Knights’ 5-2 win over Florida that night.
“I got to go to the game as a fan (Sunday) night and really enjoyed myself,” Cooper said of the atmosphere at T-Mobile Arena. “But it will be a work day (on Tuesday).”
Cooper also came away impressed with what he saw on the ice.
“They roll four lines out at you and six (defensemen),” Cooper told NHL.com. “Their team is really good. It was really impressive to watch.
“It feels like they’re never out of a play. You fall asleep on them and they’re going to get you. They’re a team that plays for three periods.”
The game against the Golden Knights (21-9-2) ends a 10-day, four-game road trip for the Lightning that started with a 3-0 victory at St. Louis and also included a 4-1 win over Arizona before the Saturday victory over the Avalanche.
“We came on this trip wanting to win all four,” Tampa Bay defenseman Jake Dotchin said. “We still haven’t accomplished our goal. We’ve got to come in Tuesday ready to go and get ready to play a good team.”