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Knights’ blue line to be tested after injury to key defenseman

Updated March 29, 2023 - 5:30 pm

The Golden Knights’ 7-4 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday was “not rocket science,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.

The Knights didn’t play how they needed to against the No. 1 offense in the NHL. Their defense, in particular, wasn’t close to its usual level, as the team tied its season high for goals allowed.

It was a surprising performance given the Knights’ recent run. Their blue line has been the bedrock of their success since the All-Star break. It has allowed them to find a winning formula despite captain Mark Stone’s back injury and a goaltender parade that has gone five deep.

The Knights will have to hope the letdown is a one-off. They did lose a key piece of their back end Tuesday, as defenseman Shea Theodore didn’t play in the third period and is considered day to day with an undisclosed injury.

Defenseman Ben Hutton is expected to jump into the lineup for Thursday’s game at San Jose. Defenseman Brayden Pachal was also called up for the trip.

Theodore’s injury ends a remarkable stretch for the Knights’ blue line.

Thursday will mark the first time one of the team’s defensemen will be out because of injury since the All-Star break. Alec Martinez missed Saturday’s game for personal reasons, but otherwise the six regulars have dressed 22 of a possible 23 times.

It’s not a coincidence the team’s 17-4-2 record in that stretch is tied for the second-best in the NHL. The Knights entered the season believing they had one of the best defense corps in the league. When they’ve been healthy, they’ve proven that’s the case.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo has led the way with an impressive two-way season. His 49 points in 65 games are tied for the 15th-most among defensemen. He is also plus-7 at five-on-five while taking on the Knights’ most difficult defensive assignments with Martinez.

Theodore, partnered with veteran stalwart Brayden McNabb, also has been spectacular with 41 points in 54 games. Health has been the only thing preventing his play from garnering more attention, as he missed most of December and almost all of January recovering from a lower-body injury.

Third-pair defensemen Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud have also stepped up since the break. Cassidy started giving them tougher minutes to ease the burden on the top guys, and they are handling it well.

“We have six guys that are capable in matchups,” Pietrangelo said. “When you have the luxury of everybody playing in every situation, it opens up space for each other. You can see it. We’re having success defensively and offensively throughout the three pairings.”

Having those six available the past two months has benefited the Knights in so many ways.

It has quickened the pace of their breakouts because they’re so familiar with one another. They know where to be and how to communicate with one another. It’s also given the Knights more transition chances on offense because they have guys such as Theodore capable of zipping the puck through the neutral zone.

The defensive solidity has also allowed them to survive starting a franchise-record five goaltenders this season. The reason the Knights became the first team in NHL history to start four goalies in four consecutive games and go 4-0-0 is because of their play in front of the net.

Only six teams allow a higher rate of high-danger scoring chances at five-on-five, according to the website Natural Stat Trick. The Knights’ blue line is giving its goalie a fair shot almost every time out.

“It’s a testament to this team,” goaltender Laurent Brossoit said of the different starters all getting results. ”The structure they play with. The consistency they play with. Even if guys are hurt, playerwise, guys come in and fill positions, play the system how it’s supposed to be played, and it makes it easier on the goalies.”

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

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