VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The common refrain from the Golden Knights during their five-game win streak is that newly acquired right wing Mark Stone has been the difference maker.
That might be true, but something else has helped, too.
The Knights have scored the first goal in four consecutive games and finally are making those leads hold up after struggling to do so earlier this season.
“It’s a whole different game when you play with the lead,” left wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “When we get that go-ahead goal, we play with more confidence. It’s a big difference, obviously, when you’re trailing. Sometimes you’re trying a little harder and it doesn’t come as easy.”
The Knights allowed the first goal in 10 of their first 12 games after the All-Star break and went 4-7-1.
But without having to chase the game the past two weeks, the difference has been noticeable for Vegas — the only exception being a 6-5 shootout win over Florida on Feb. 28.
The Knights slowly squeezed the air out of Anaheim and Vancouver in back-to-back 3-0 victories and kept Calgary on its heels for most of Wednesday’s 2-1 win over the Pacific Division leaders.
“With our group, we tell them, ‘Continue to press,’” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “When you get a lead 1-0 and the other team scores within five minutes, it’s not a big difference in the game. I think when you (maintain) that lead as much as we did (Wednesday) night, I think it’s important.”
Last season, the Knights were 34-5-2 when scoring first, and their .829 winning percentage was second in the NHL behind Tampa Bay (36-6-1, .839).
The Knights have had a much harder time protecting leads this season and are 22-10-3 when scoring the first goal. The 22 victories are tied with Buffalo for 17th overall, and the Knights’ .629 winning percentage when scoring first ranks 22nd.
“We struggled scoring the first goal a lot in the last couple months, and it’s always tough battling back,” right wing Reilly Smith said. “I think our record is probably one of the better ones in the league when not scoring the first goal. I think we’re close to .500. Goals are hard to come by, especially late in the year, and if you can get that first one, it goes a long way.”
Smith is correct that the Knights have shown an ability to come from behind to win. They are 15-16-2 when the opponent scores first, and the 15 victories are tied with Boston, the New York Islanders and Washington for fourth-most in the league.
The Knights’ .429 winning percentage when they fall behind ranks sixth overall.
“Our starts have not necessarily been that amazing this year so far,” Marchessault said. “It’s definitely something we could improve. But the way we finish the game, we know if we’re in the lead going into the third period, normally we’re going to come ahead and be on the winning side.”
But playing with a lead will be an important factor for the Knights during their back-to-back, which starts Saturday at Vancouver and continues Sunday at Calgary.
The Canucks are 9-26-7 when the opposition scores first. Calgary, meanwhile, is 31-4-1 when it scores first, and the Flames’ .861 winning percentage is No. 1 in the NHL.
“I know number-wise it means a lot, but we go out there, we play the game for 60 minutes no matter if we score first or not,” Gallant said. “But it’s definitely fun playing when you’ve got the lead early in the hockey game.”
Who: Golden Knights at Canucks
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rogers Arena, Vancouver, British Columbia
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Golden Knights -165; total 5½
1. Do it again. The Golden Knights roughed up Vancouver when they met six days ago at T-Mobile Arena, allowing 19 shots on goal in a 3-0 victory. For a stretch in the third period, the Canucks couldn’t even get the puck across the red line. Expect the Knights to follow a similar game plan.
2. Net gains. Knights coach Gerard Gallant hinted last week at utilizing goaltender Malcolm Subban in back-to-back situations. This would seem to be an optimal spot to use Subban, who is 4-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in his past five starts, and save Marc-Andre Fleury for Calgary.
3. Up and down. Vancouver is playing its third game in four days and has fallen out of the race for the wild cards in the Western Conference. Offense continues to be an issue for the Canucks, who have scored two or fewer goals in nine of their past 12 games and been shut out three times.