Saturday, April 29, 2023 | 1:46 p.m.
It didn’t take long for William Carrier to get reacclimated into the Golden Knights’ lineup.
For someone who has had a defined role since day one, even missing nearly two months doesn’t change the way the 28-year-old left winger approaches the game.
“The hitting part is easy,” Carrier said with a laugh.
Carrier made his return Thursday in the Golden Knights’ 4-1 series-clinching win over the Winnipeg Jets after missing nearly two month days with a lower-body injury. Carrier returned to his usual fourth-line role with Nicolas Roy and Keegan Kolesar.
Though he played the fewest minutes of any player (9:36), Carrier made his presence felt with a game-high six hits as well as two shots on goal.
That wrecking-ball mentality has been dialed back this year — Carrier’s 133 hits in 56 games are the fewest he’s had in an 82-game season during his Vegas tenure — but he knows when to get it going when the opportunity calls for it.
Like his hit on Jets defenseman Neal Pionk early in the second period when he barreled over Pionk in the corner of the offensive zone.
But Carrier was able to find his game early because of his familiarity in that checking role.
“That’s the easy part: chipping pucks, playing smart,” Carrier said. “It’s kind of what the fourth line has been doing, starting periods, (hitting guys). We’d like to be more offensive, but we’ll keep working at that.”
There was obvious frustration when Carrier got hurt. He was in the midst of a career season with 16 goals and was elevated to a third-line scoring role in the second half.
Carrier played just 5:08 in the March 3 game against the Florida Panthers when his knee hit the ice and had to be helped to the locker room. He said he thought it was an injury that was going to keep him out for the rest of the season.
It took a couple of weeks after the injury, followed by two more MRIs, before team doctors told Carrier there was a chance he could return. So, he started revving up the rehab process more than usual.
“I’m feeling great right now,” Carrier said. “The rehab went really well. Happy to be here now and not (in) October.”
Carrier’s return signaled the healthiest the Golden Knights had been up front since dating back to the beginning of the season. They already got a boost with Mark Stone returning and scoring eight points (three goals, five assists) in the first round.
The forward depth has long been a strength for Bruce Cassidy. Eleven forwards reached double digits in goals this season.
Game 5 was the perfect example of showcasing that depth.
The fourth line has been a consistent staple. It’s been the trio Cassidy has started games with, and the group that he’s asked to defend the opposition’s top lines. They had a 7-6 advantage in shot attempts while on the ice together.
That moved Ivan Barbashev from the fourth line to the top line with Jack Eichel and Jonathan Marchessault. Though the line did not score in Game 5 it still put together a dominant performance.
The Eichel-led line outshot the opposition 8-3 on the ice together at 5-on-5, had 0.86 expected goals and gave up 0.05 expected goals, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“This is probably as close as to how we would’ve designed it if we were fully healthy down the stretch,” Cassidy said. “I like the way it looked.”
Health and depth pushed Cassidy to make tough decisions on who to take out of the lineup. The odd man out was Phil Kessel, the NHL’s iron man with 1,064 consecutive regular-season games played. The veteran Kessel missed his first game due to injury or as a healthy scratch for the first time since Nov. 3, 2009.
Kessel’s streak, however, remains intact.
Between Kessel, rookie Paul Cotter (13 goals this season), rookie Pavel Dorofeyev (seven goals in 18 games) and veteran defensive center Teddy Blueger, finding the right lineup combinations is a day-to-day task for Cassidy.
But with Carrier back, the Golden Knights head into the second round at full strength. They await the winner of the series between the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers will advance with a win Saturday night in Game 6 in Los Angeles.
“When you get a healthy lineup, it’s more who works with who,” Carrier said. “You start losing guys and whomever’s healthy, you can find who you want to play with and who they click with.”
Defenseman Shea Theodore returned to practice Saturday after missing Game 5 due to an illness.
Theodore took part in warmups Thursday but was a late scratch. Along with blue line partner Brayden McNabb (upper body) missing the game, the Golden Knights played veteran Ben Hutton and AHL Henderson captain Brayden Pachal in their place.
It was the first Stanley Cup Playoff game for both defensemen.
McNabb did not practice and remains day-to-day.
Forwards Chandler Stephenson and Marchessault took maintenance days and are expected to be fine. The Golden Knights are not scheduled to practice Sunday.