Chandler Stephenson‘s return from injury is “on the horizon,” Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said Monday, a positive development for a forward corps that has struggled to score against the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The first-line center has missed the past three games with an undisclosed injury.
Vegas has scored 10 goals in the best-of-7 series, which is tied entering Game 5 on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS). Three of the goals have come from forwards. None has come from the Golden Knights’ top seven goal-scorers in the regular season.
“Obviously, it’s great that we tied the series yesterday,” forward Jonathan Marchessault said the morning after a 2-1 overtime win in Montreal on Sunday. “But at some point, the big guys are going to have to come out and step up here, including myself. I think it’s not good enough for the forwards that we have to have only three goals in four games.”
Marchessault brought up the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, when the Golden Knights scored 12 goals in their last eight games. They faced defenses that kept shots to the outside and hot goalies: Thatcher Demko of the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Second Round and Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final.
The Canadiens also take away the middle of the ice, and they have Carey Price.
“Obviously, we’re facing an unbelievable goalie, but that’s no excuse,” Marchessault said. “It’s the same thing last year against Vancouver, Dallas. It’s the same thing. We’ve got to find a way and stop … We don’t have any excuses. We need solutions ASAP, and we need to help our team win some games here.”
The Golden Knights’ top seven goal scorers in the regular season were forwards Max Pacioretty (24), Mark Stone (21), Alex Tuch (18), Marchessault (18), Stephenson (14), William Karlsson (14) and Reilly Smith (14).
Nicolas Roy (two) and Mattias Janmark (one) have scored among the forwards against Montreal. Alex Pietrangelo (three), Nick Holden (one), Brayden McNabb (one), Alec Martinez (one) and Shea Theodore (one) have scored among the defensemen.
Vegas misses Stephenson’s speed, and his absence has forced DeBoer to tinker with the lineup, trying Roy, Tuch, Keegan Kolesar and Tomas Nosek at times on the top line between Pacioretty and Stone.
“We’ve played basically this series without our No. 1 centerman so far,” DeBoer said. “Obviously want to get him back in the lineup, and I think that’s on the horizon. But I give credit to the guys who’ve stepped in there and done the job.
“You take somebody like that out of anybody’s lineup, and it affects your team. I look at [the Canadiens] in Game 1 without [defenseman Jeff Petry] in their lineup. That changes how your team plays. It changes the structure of your team, your depth, and to our guys’ credit, we’ve found a way. It hasn’t maybe looked as pretty as everyone would like it to look, but we’ve found a way.”
Some scoring droughts go back further than this series. Stone has one goal in his past 12 games, Tuch one in his past 13, Smith in his past 14. Stephenson has no goals in 14 games in the playoffs.
The power play is 0-for-11 against Montreal and 4-for-39 in the playoffs (10.3 percent, worst among the 16 playoff teams).
The top forwards have contributed in other ways. Karlsson set up McNabb’s tying goal at 10:37 of the third period in Game 4 and he leads the Golden Knights with three assists in the series. Pacioretty and Tuch set up Roy’s winning goal at 1:18 of overtime. Each has two assists in the four games.
“I think the way we activate (on defense) is important,” Pietrangelo said. “I think some games, some series, you’re going to score more than others. I think we’re getting those opportunities. We did all season long. It’s just right now the group collectively, we’re finding the back of the net, which is important.
“I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of talk about the forwards not scoring, but they’re creating opportunities. They’re creating those plays allowing us to score those goals. Obviously, we’ve got to continue to find a way to create some more. They’re playing tight defensively. The goalie’s playing well.”