ANAHEIM, Calif. — After a rest for the NHL’s holiday break, the Vegas Golden Knights will continue their improbable first season when they face the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night at Honda Center.
The Golden Knights (23-9-2) enter the matchup with a four-game winning streak and are undefeated in regulation play in their last nine games (8-0-1), elevating them to the top of the Pacific Division.
Given virtually no chance to compete for the playoffs in its inaugural season, Vegas has surprised the entire league with a combination of solid offense (fifth in goals scored with 119) and stable defense (10th in goals against with 100) despite multiple injuries to goaltenders that forced coach Gerard Gallant to utilize four in their first 25 games.
Marc-Andre Fleury posted his 45th career shutout in Vegas’ 3-0 victory over the Washington Capitals in its last game before the break. He turned aside 26 shots and improved his record to 6-0-1 with a 1.97 goal-against average and a .938 save percentage. He is the probable starter against Anaheim.
Fleury missed 25 games after being placed on injured reserve Oct, 14 as a result of a concussion. He has shown no ill effects upon his return.
“He’s been real good,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said of Fleury. “We know what we got when we got him in the expansion draft. You know that he’s a first-class goaltender.”
One of the primary reasons for Vegas’ ascension is its exceptional play inside the Pacific Division, with a 9-1-0 record that includes two victories over the Ducks.
The Golden Knights won 4-2 in Anaheim on Nov. 22 and 4-3 in a shootout on Dec. 5. After Wednesday’s match, the teams will meet for the final time in the regular on Feb. 19 at T-Mobile Arena.
The Ducks (16-13-8) start a three-game homestand looking to build on back-to-back victories at the conclusion of a six-game road trip (3-2-1) that kept them in the mix for a postseason berth despite having the most man games lost to injury.
Anaheim concluded its most difficult road stretch of the season before the break, playing two six-game road trips in the past month and capturing 12 points in 12 games (4-4-4).
A 4-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins was goaltender John Gibson’s first shutout of the season. Gibson stopped 26 shots and received support from his special teams that provided a power play and short-handed goals.
The win was Anaheim’s first in Pittsburgh since 2012, and coupled with its overtime victory over the New York Islanders last Monday, it gives the Ducks a platform to build on.
One area the Ducks must improve on is limiting shots by the opposition, which has been impacted by the season-long absence of center Ryan Kesler. He is close to returning after major offseason hip surgery.
Without Kesler’s presence, Anaheim has yielded 34.92 shots per game, second worst in the league.
Despite the solid play of Gibson and backups Ryan Miller and Reto Berra (.927 and .931 save percentages, respectively), continuing to allow a high number of attempts will impair the Ducks’ chances of winning their sixth straight division title.
Improvement in overtime would also assist in securing the Ducks’ sixth consecutive trip to the postseason. Dropping eight games after regulation play has taken important points off the board, but with improved health Carlyle believes their odds will greatly improve.
“There’s a different sort of personnel now when you roll out Ryan Getzlaf and Rickard Rakell and then you follow up with (Jakob) Silfverberg and (Adam) Henrique,” Carlyle said. “We’ve got more depth. Ondrej Kase can get out there and Antoine Vermette is big for faceoffs.”
Getzlaf is riding a six-game scoring streak (one goal, seven assists) and continues to round into top form after missing 19 games because of a facial fracture suffered Oct. 29 at Carolina. Longtime running mate winger Corey Perry will miss his sixth consecutive game with a lower-body injury and is considered week to week.
Rakell is the lone Duck to register double-digit goals as he scored his 10th of the season in the Pittsburgh victory.