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Golden Knights first line rediscovers need for speed

Updated October 14, 2019 - 5:01 pm

If you believe Golden Knights center William Karlsson and his long blond locks are sweeping across the T-Mobile Arena ice quicker than usual, you’d be right.

He thinks so too.

Karlsson doesn’t know why, but he thinks his line with left wing Jonathan Marchessault and right wing Reilly Smith are playing faster than they did a season ago. They’re closer to the trio that tormented teams during the Knights’ inaugural season and made opposing top lines sweat every night.

And that’s timely, with the two-time defending Central Division-champion Nashville Predators coming to town for a 7 p.m. game Tuesday.

“It’s definitely better than last year, that’s for sure,” Karlsson said. “We’re playing fast and it seems to be working right now.”

The Knights’ first line wasn’t bad last season. They just didn’t live up to the lofty standards they set for themselves a year before.

Karlsson’s goal total went from 43 to 24, and his plus-minus went from plus-49 to plus-1. Marchessault and Smith had similar drops in production as they became the focal point for the opposition.

Their transition game was clogged. Their shots weren’t going in. And the top-end speed that took so many opponents by surprise in 2017-18 just didn’t seem to be there every game.

“Last year, our line was too inconsistent,” Marchessault said. “It was disappointing for all three of us. We want to redeem that and be a top line that our team can rely on.”

If that was the aim, so far, so good.

The Knights’ first line looks like its old self through six games. It’s getting out on the break and wearing opponents down with its high-paced forecheck.

Karlsson has six assists despite fighting through a “little issue” that prevented him from taking faceoffs for the first four games. Smith is tied for the team lead with four goals and has an assist. Marchessault has a goal and an assist.

All told the group has had 63.71 percent of the shot attempts and 68.33 percent of the scoring chances when they’ve been on the ice 5-on-5. It also has an insane 74.12 percent expected-goals share, which measures what percentage of goals players are expected to have while on the ice. At almost 75 percent, the Knights’ top line is expected to outscore opponents 3-1 every 60 minutes.

That’s not even taking into account the work Karlsson and Smith are doing on the penalty kill. They’ve been on the ice for two shorthanded goals and have surrendered only one power-play goal.

“I think we’re doing a good job keeping the puck moving forward and giving ourselves some chances,” Smith said. “We expected a lot more from our group last season, especially in the playoffs, and it was tough not to perform the way we wanted. But we all came in great shape this season and with the idea of having nothing to hold us back.”

The key to it all has been playing faster. On the penalty kill, 5-on-5, everywhere. While the first line can’t pinpoint a reason why they have more speed — “Maybe we’re a few pounds lighter this year?” Karlsson offered — it’s clear that has helped it rediscover some of its 2017-18 form.

”We still have a lot of improvement to do, but I do think we all feel like we are playing like two years ago,” Marchessault said. “We’re all moving well.”

More Golden Knights: Follow at reviewjournal.com/GoldenKnights and @HockeyinVegas on Twitter.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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