The Vegas Golden Knights reached the midpoint of their first NHL season Sunday night at one extreme of the Western Conference standings. Just not the extreme everyone expected.
The Golden Knights celebrated the 41-game mark with a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on Sunday night before a season-high crowd of 18,234 at T-Mobile Arena. Vegas (29-10-2) pushed its Western Conference-leading point total to 60 - 3 ahead of Central Division leader Winnipeg with two games in hand.
William Karlsson scored his team-high 22nd goal at the 8:58 mark of the third period to break a 1-1 tie in the final game for both teams before their five-day breaks.
Vegas extended its home winning streak to seven games as James Neal contributed his 18th goal and Marc-Andre Fleury (9-2-1) posted 28 saves. Mika Zibanejad posted his 13th goal of the year for the Rangers (22-15-5) as backup goalie Ondrej Pavelec (3-5-1) made 32 saves in his first appearance since shutting out Washington on Dec. 27.
The Rangers opened the scoring at 13:05 of the first when Zibanejad snapped one past Fleury - prompting a sizable roar from the Rangers fandom inside T-Mobile Arena.
Neal responded with a wrister from the top of the left circle to pull Vegas even at 17:23 of the first. He took advantage of a Rangers turnover and beat Pavelec’s glove in the top right corner.
Karlsson’s game-winner - a one-timer from the right faceoff dot set up by Reilly Smith’s cross-slot feed — pushed the Golden Knights’ NHL-best home record to 18-2-1.
To put Vegas’ overall achievements into perspective, here is the number of points each of the last four Stanley Cup victors owned at the midpoint of their championship seasons:
2017: Pittsburgh (57 points)
2016: Pittsburgh (45 points)
2015: Chicago (56 points)
2014: Los Angeles (54 points)
The kudos and honors continued to roll in Sunday as Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant was named as the Pacific Division team’s boss for the NHL All-Star Game. Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault, an assistant for the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992-93, explained prior to Sunday’s game what he sees in the Golden Knights.
“They’ve got mobile defensemen. They’ve got real good goaltending. They were able to get speed and skill up front. I can tell you from my first experience with an expansion team, back in ‘92-93, that the rules were a little different,” Vigneault said with a laugh. “The quality of their players is different. Give that organization full credit and full marks.”
Gallant juggled his lineup slightly against the Rangers as defenseman Luca Sbisa, who returned to the lineup Friday after an extended injury absence, was held out Sunday after suffering an upper-body injury. Brad Hunt replaced him and saw his first action since Dec. 9.
Meanwhile, Vegas forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare returned to the lineup after missing two games while he and his wife, Hannah, welcomed their first child, Leandre Lian, into the world.
Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello, who missed Saturday’s shootout victory at Arizona due to illness, tested himself during warmups and felt good enough to go. He played 16:49 and was on the ice for both Vegas goals.
New York’s Kevin Hayes left late in the first period with a lower-body injury and did not return. He fired one shot in 3:01 of play.
—Field Level Media