AP Photo/Photo Illustration
Thursday, April 13, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Six players remain from the beloved Golden Knights team that improbably advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in its inaugural season. Call them the pillars of the franchise, a foundation that has stayed strong enough to help deliver Vegas to the Playoffs in five of its six seasons.
William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith, William Carrier, Brayden McNabb and Shea Theodore have stayed the course in Vegas since 2018, despite roster turnover elsewhere. They’re now being rewarded with another golden opportunity to match the initial magical run, if not top it.
The Western Conference has looked wide open all season, giving the Golden Knights a clear path back to the Stanley Cup Final when the playoffs begin April 17.
“It’s not something you can take for granted,” Marchessault says of the near-perennial success. “For me, I’ve been pretty lucky. I didn’t make the playoffs two years of my 11, 12-year career. I consider myself lucky.”
One of his non-playoff years came last season. Having suffered injuries galore, the Golden Knights fought to stay alive until the penultimate game of their regular season, when they were officially eliminated. They did so without stars Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty for half of the season, and other standouts like Karlsson and Alec Martinez, to name a few, also missed significant time.
Injuries have struck again this season, and though they haven’t hit quite as hard, they might again be the biggest hurdle standing in the way of a long playoff run. Carrier has a lower-body injury that has him out indefinitely, while Theodore’s playoff status is also up in the air with the same designation.
In addition, Stone has been out since January and underwent back surgery. He recently began light skating as part of his rehab, and though he could possibly return at some point, it likely won’t be early in the playoffs.
Goaltending is something of question mark, too. Logan Thompson and Adin Hill appear close to returning after dealing with lower-body injuries that sidelined them and dampened what had been strong play for stretches throughout the season. But there’s no guarantee either of them will see postseason action if Laurent Brossoit takes control of the goaltending job by continuing the high level of play he locked into late in the regular season.
“Opportunities like this don’t come every year,” Marchessault says of the playoffs. “You have to be in the moment, take it one game at a time and take care of business.”
Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith—the trio forever known as “the Misfit Line”—have certainly taken care of their end this season. Although they haven’t stayed on the same line together as in the past, their production has remained high.
Marchessault is closing in on a second consecutive 30-goal season and is nearing his third 60-point season since joining the Golden Knights.
Injuries thwarted Smith’s chances at his first career 30-goal season, but he has still exceeded expectations in the first year of a three-year, $15 million extension signed on the first day of free agency last July.
Karlsson, meanwhile, has made the biggest leap of the three. After seeing his play decline from his 43-goal expansion season, he has rebounded for his first 50-point campaign since 2018-2019 and had amassed a career-high 37 assists through 78 games at press time.
Those three original Misfits have kept the team humming throughout the franchise’s existencex. Even on a star-studded roster headlined by the likes of Jack Eichel and Alex Pietrangelo, those in the Vegas locker room point to Marchessault, Karlsson and Smith as the engine of the team.
Nothing might ever match what they achieved their first year in Vegas, when Karlsson was scoring highlight-reel goals and the line was converting odd-man rushes with ease, but the experience has proven beneficial for them.
“That was the best hockey anyone in that lineup played in their life,” Marchessault says about the expansion year. “That’s something that’s never going to be repeated.”
Smith is the team’s all-time leader in playoff points with 52, while Marchessault leads Vegas with 21 playoff goals. Marchessault became a local legend during the 2018 playoff run, when he scored 21 points in 20 games.
“Even still, to this day, I’m chasing the playoffs I had [that year],” Marchessault says. “I want to get better. I’m still looking to get better.”
While this might not be the most talented team the Golden Knights have put on the ice—the 2020-2021 team that led the league in points at the time of the COVID-19 season interruption is tough to top in that department—this year’s group is still well-equipped to compete against any opponent. And, once again, it’s largely on the backs of those who started it all.
“They care about the Golden Knights’ legacy,” coach Bruce Cassidy says. “They’re original guys, and they want to be remembered for that. I think they take a lot of pride in that. I see it in their work every day, staying in the lineup, by being healthy, taking care of themselves.”
This story originally appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.