After some pageantry and nice “welcome back” videos, it was business as usual. The Golden Knights hammered the Rangers with four unanswered goals en route to a 5-1 win.
“Our guys knew how important this game was,” head coach Pete DeBoer said. “No one was happy about our game against Nashville. That's what good teams do. They bounce back after an off effort with a real good game. I thought we kept our focus and did that tonight.”
The first period of play saw both teams trying to figure out how the other wanted to play. Robin Lehner made his return to the lineup and made some good saves early on to keep the Rangers off the board. Alexander Georgiev did the same for the Rangers in net during the first period.
There was not a lot of scoring chances until about midway through the period, when the Rangers got their first power play of the game. They spent the entire power play in the Golden Knights zone but came away empty.
The Golden Knights got their first power play opportunity with just over two minutes left in the first period. Jonathan Marchessault got the VGK on the board, cleaning up a rebound in front of the net to make it 1-0.
The Rangers quickly responded at the start of the second period. Chris Kreider skated down the right-wing and fired a wrist shot over the glove-hand of Lehner to tie the game at one.
That was the only blemish on an otherwise solid performance in net for Lehner. The Golden Knights went on to score two goals in the second period following the Kreider goal.
Mark Stone, who made his return to the lineup as well, scored the eventual game-winning goal of a feed from Evgenii Dadanov. Later in the period, Matias Janmark scored his fifth goal in the last five games to make it 3-1.
Two minutes into the third period, the Golden Knights put the game on ice. Nolan Patrick made a beautiful drop pass to Brett Howden, and Howden fired a wrist shot just under the pad of Georgiev to make it 4-1.
Marchessault potted a late insurance goal on a two-on-one rush to bump the score up to 5-1. Marchessault now leads the team with 18 goals on the season, equaling his high from last season and is on pace to break his career high in goals (30).
The score held up, and the Golden Knights walked away with another victory over their former coach.
In the last five games, despite winning each of them, Lehner had been struggling. Since being pulled against Dallas, Lehner had a 2.92 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. The goals he had been letting in during this time were ones that when he is on his game, he stops.
Thursday night’s game was a monumental step in the right direction. While he was not asked to do a ton during this game, he made some big saves at key moments to not allow the Rangers to gain any momentum.
“As always, it’s nice emotions when you’re able to get back on the ice,” Lehner said. “I felt pretty good. I’ve been working hard to get back and it was nice to get back and get a win.”
Part of the reason the Golden Knights were able to get this done was their transition play and defense. In the second period, play opened up significantly more. Both teams were getting out in transition, but the Golden Knights were one step ahead. Not only did they generate more chances off the rush, but they also defended the neutral zone much better. This led to all four of their unanswered goals.
This allowed them to have extended zone time and keep the pressure on the Rangers. While none of these opportunities led to any goals, it did lead to prime scoring chances and a lot of Ranger turnovers.
“We started turning pucks over at the blue line and we started defending in our D-zone instead of playing,” former Golden Knights head coach Gerard Gallant said in his postgame press conference. “When you let [Vegas] go D-to-D and get pucks to the net and win battles, you are not going to beat that team.”
The Golden Knights reunion continues on Saturday night when the team will welcome back the most familiar face of all. Marc-Andre Fleury, who was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the offseason, will make his return to the Fortress in his first game against his former team. Puck drop for that game will be at 7 P.M. PST and can be viewed on AT&T Sportsnet.