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Knights shake up defense, leading to questions for stretch run

There were four Golden Knights players on the ice 20 minutes before Monday’s practice.

Goaltenders Adin Hill and Logan Thompson took shots from left wing William Carrier on the north side of the rink. Defenseman Zach Whitecloud was on the other, working with skills development coach Sean Ferrell. Whitecloud’s longtime defense partner Nic Hague joined in 10 minutes later.

The two blue liners have been paired together since their American Hockey League days in Chicago. They were scratched together Sunday.

Coach Bruce Cassidy benched Hague and Whitecloud to play veterans Ben Hutton and Alec Martinez in the Knights’ 3-1 win against the New Jersey Devils.

Cassidy said it was a tough decision, but he’s looking for consistency from Hague and Whitecloud with the team still fighting for a playoff spot.

“They’re at their best when they’re defending well, executing a good first pass,” Cassidy said. “It’s more about playing against the advantage we have when everyone’s on. I think every pair can play against everyone.”

The game was a milestone for Hutton, who made his 500th NHL appearance Sunday. He waited a long time for it. He suffered an upper-body injury his last game Dec. 28 against the Los Angeles Kings.

Martinez jumped into the lineup for the first time since March 4 after having foot surgery.

“It was good to get back out there,” Martinez said. “I haven’t played in a couple weeks, (Hutton) hasn’t played maybe since he got hurt. I was really proud the way he stepped in.”

The veterans didn’t look rusty. The Knights outshot the Devils 12-2 when Hutton and Martinez were on the ice. They also had an 11-3 edge in scoring chances.

Cassidy said he liked how well the two broke the puck out and played at the offensive blue line.

“For whatever reason, (Hutton) and I probably had a decent amount of o-zone time yesterday. At least that’s what it felt like,” Martinez said. “Them getting good pressure allows us to get down low. I don’t think it’s a pairing thing. I think it’s a team thing.”

Martinez said he understands what Hague and Whitecloud are going through.

The two were key parts of the Knights’ Stanley Cup championship run last season but haven’t made the same impact this year. Hague, 25, is minus-6 at five-on-five. Whitecloud, 27, is minus-5.

Those ratings are worst and second-worst among the Knights’ regular defensemen, respectively. Martinez believes the two can still play an important role again.

“We’re a team here. I know things like that happen,” Martinez said. “We’re all here to support each other, regardless of who’s in, who’s out. Unfortunately, that’s the crummy part. You’ve got a lot of good players and you can’t play everyone. That’s the way this business can go.”

Cassidy said Sunday the team will reassess the third defensive pair heading into an important matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at T-Mobile Arena. It’s unclear if Martinez and Hutton were given a one-game trial or whether they’ll be leaned on the Knights’ final 15 regular-season games.

All options appear to be on the table with the team trying to punch its postseason ticket. The Knights have a four-point lead on the St. Louis Blues for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference with a game in hand.

“We have eight healthy NHL defensemen. Two have to come out,” Cassidy said. “It’s not just about performance. It’s just about what we have when we’re healthy. That’s a little bit of not getting in their own way when they get back in there and thinking they have to be the best player on the ice that night to stay in the lineup. That’s not the case. Just be the best version of yourself.”

Contact Danny Webster at dwebster@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DannyWebster21 on X.

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