Friday, July 31, 2020 / by Ken Couture
The last time the Golden Knights played a game, they were in Edmonton, Alberta, celebrating defenseman Shea Theodore’s overtime goal. That was 143 days ago.
When they hit the ice at Rogers Place on Thursday, hardly anything will be the same.
The Knights face Arizona in a midsummer exhibition game that will serve as a tuneup for the NHL’s 24-team postseason tournament.
“For me, I want to see a version of how we went into the pause to our game,” coach Pete DeBoer said in a video news conference Wednesday. “I know we’re not going to be all the way there, but playing without overthinking situations, playing with a lot of speed, supporting each other, supporting the puck.
“I know it’s not going to be perfect and you’re going to have to live with some mistakes after the layoff we’ve had, but the quicker we can get back to a version of that game, the more success we’re going to have.”
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury will draw the starting assignment against the Coyotes as DeBoer uses the next four games to help determine his starter for Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.
DeBoer wanted to give Fleury the first game back in part because the 35-year-old sat out the first three practices in training camp for maintenance on an undisclosed ailment that was not related to a positive COVID-19 test.
“I think (Fleury) had the later start to training camp,” DeBoer said. “He missed the first few days. I felt it was important to get him in a game as soon as possible. That was the only things that went into the decision, but both guys are going to play here.”
Fleury finished 27-16-5 with a 2.77 goals-against average and .905 save percentage in 49 regular-season appearances. The three-time Stanley Cup winner ranks seventh all time with 78 postseason victories.
Robin Lehner is in line to start Monday against Dallas in the first round-robin game, as DeBoer said he expects to alternate goaltenders during the round robin.
“We’re going to play both guys through these first four games,” DeBoer said. “I think we have two starting goalies. I think we’re going to need both guys if we go as deep as we want to go and we feel we can go.”
The Knights won 11 of their final 13 games before the NHL season was paused March 12 because of the coronavirus pandemic and will try to recapture that form as quickly as possible.
The first two days of the NHL’s return have shown these are anything but typical exhibition games.
The Battle of Alberta between Calgary and Edmonton nearly boiled over Tuesday evening, and Florida’s Brian Boyle traded right hands with Mikhail Sergachev of Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
“Obviously, you take these exhibition games, the outcome does not really matter,” left wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “But, I mean, your execution, your physical play, your moving your feet, playing well in the D-zone, making the right decision with the puck, all that needs to be A-1 to prepare for the first game that we’re going to face Dallas Monday. We have to prepare for that.”
While the Knights try to fine-tune aspects of their game, whether it’s the penalty kill or defensive-zone coverage, they’ll take on a Coyotes team that needs to get up to speed immediately.
After facing the Knights, Arizona jumps straight into a best-of-five series against Nashville that begins Sunday.
Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet said goalie Darcy Kuemper will start and Antti Raanta also will play against the Knights.
“As you’ve seen so far, I think the pace is tremendously high,” Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “I think it’s higher than I’ve ever seen games at the beginning of the year. I think guys are ready to rock and hungry.
“For me, it’s just about positioning. Making sure you get good habits going the first game and making sure you know where you’re at.”
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